The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Folklore and gothic horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…

It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.

Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.

Anna Mazzola

Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.

By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.

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

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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

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

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan

It all began that day

😦

Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.

I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.

Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.

Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…

Christine Mangan

I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

“Blood will have blood…”

😀 😀 😀 😀

Back in the last days of high school, Kit Owens became friendly with new girl, Diane Fleming. Beautiful, intelligent Diane encouraged Kit to rise above the modest ambitions she had for herself, and instead set her sights on gaining a scholarship to study biology at university. But Diane also told Kit a secret – something so shocking it ended their friendship and has haunted Kit ever since. Now Kit is working as a postdoc for Dr Severin, a scientist both girls had admired and been inspired by. All Dr Severin’s team are hoping for a coveted spot on a new study she’s beginning, into PMDD – Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an extreme form of PMT. But suddenly Dr Severin announces she’s taking on a new team member. Kit is appalled to discover that her old friend Diane is now to be her colleague and rival. Old secrets turn into new nightmares…

I always love the way Megan Abbott writes about the hormone-driven intensity of teenage girls and their friendships, but I’m also glad she’s beginning to take her girls into womanhood too in her last couple of books. This follows the almost ubiquitous pattern of current thriller writing of having sections set in past and present (with the past written in past tense and the present in present tense, which is at least slightly more appropriate than some uses of the annoying present tense). It also has a touch of “that day” syndrome (where the narrator keeps referring ominously to something that happened in the past), though in this case the reader is told what happened that day reasonably early on – before I got to full tooth-gnashing, Kindle-hurling mode, although it was close. Kit, of course, is an unreliable narrator. Surprisingly, despite all these stylistic clichés, I enjoyed the book, which is a tribute to Abbott’s writing.

There’s very little I can say about the plot without spoilers. I found the setting of a biology lab intriguing – it feels very well researched and believable, as Abbott shows the teamwork that is essential but also the rivalries for the limited number of grant-funded positions that offer the best opportunities for break-through research and professional triumph. PMDD is a syndrome I hadn’t heard of before, and is mostly peripheral to the plot. But Abbott employs it as a kind of vehicle for using female biology as a theme, with much – too much – concentration on blood. There’s a kind of feeling of throwback to the days of women being perceived as witchy and dangerous because of their dark sexuality. Personally I felt Abbott over-egged that aspect a bit – her adult women seemed to be as intense as her adolescents and, while she clearly wasn’t intending this, it felt to me almost as if she were suggesting that her professional women were all driven to the point of obsession, with an odd unstated link to their femaleness as the root cause. It didn’t ring wholly true to me, though it made for a nicely warped and scary story.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Did I find the plot credible? Well, no, not in the end. But the things that went over the line for me only happened very near the end, so didn’t spoil my enjoyment while reading. As usual, there were one or two twists too many, but that’s another of these laws of contemporary crime writing, sadly. The employment of all these current trends – the present tense, the unreliable first person narrator, the incredible twists, the past/present storyline – prevented me from loving this quite as much as some of her earlier books. But the quality of the writing, the excellent pacing, and the interesting plot and setting meant that as usual Abbott kept me reading well into the wee sma’ hours, so despite my criticisms I recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read!

PS I know I’m a tedious pedant but… the past and present sections are headed Then and Now. Fine – simple, clear and means the reader is never left confused. Plus, Now gives some excuse for present tense. Imagine my pedantic surprise then to discover that the final section of the book is headed Ten Years Later. Ten years later than now? You mean, in the future? Are we seeing it through a crystal ball in Divination class? Or do you mean Now is ten years ago – in which case it really can’t be Now, can it? Words matter. Don’t they?

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

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Family ties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago. But the temptation is overwhelming, and Hal knows that the skills she uses in her tarot-reading will help her to con her way through the situation. And so she sets off to Trepassen House in Cornwall, to meet a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…

I know I’m very critical of modern crime fiction but truly I don’t ask much. A good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

To be honest, I had a fair idea from pretty early on of the solution to the central mystery, but I found it didn’t really matter. There was enough doubt in my mind to keep me reading, and I didn’t know how it would all come to a head. Although it’s a fairly slow-burn book, and quite long, I found the pacing was just about perfect. I never felt my attention dip, nor had that sensation of wishing it would all hurry up and get to the end. This is because the quality of the writing makes it a pleasure to read, and the characterisation is great, with a sufficiently large and well-developed cast to provide a lot of interest. And the creepy old house itself becomes a character too – a deliciously scary one.

I loved the way Ware manages to make Hal so likeable and easy to empathise with, despite the fact that she’s trying to commit fraud. Hal’s mother had died a few years earlier when Hal was just about to finish school, leaving her penniless and with no relatives to help her out. This makes her financial woes understandable and we see at the same time that she’s doing everything she can to get her life back on track. She doesn’t believe in the mystical side of tarot herself, but is nevertheless sympathetic to the people who consult her, doing her best to give them the space to think through the problems that have brought them to her. And while initially she goes to Cornwall purely for the money, she can’t help beginning to wish she really was part of this big family with aunts and uncles and cousins – all the things her lonely heart craves.

The other characters are just as good, though obviously not all done with the same depth. I loved that Ware makes room for a lot of kindness and generosity of spirit amidst the danger and evil – something modern thrillers often forget to include, but it makes the whole thing more emotionally involving, I find. Plus, for me there’s more tension to be got out of a feeling of “oh, I hope it’s not her/him!” as there is in simply wondering which of an unsavoury bunch will turn out to be the guilty one.

Ruth Ware

This was my introduction to Ruth Ware, goaded on by the relentless stream of glowing reviews for her previous books from so many of my bloggy friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read a book written without all the stylistic fol-de-rols so many contemporary authors seem to think necessary – a strong story well told doesn’t need “creative writing”, just good writing (FF’s Ninth Law). Highly recommended – I’m off now to get hold of Ware’s earlier books!

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

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The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Strange marketing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tom Kilgannon has come to the run-down Cornish town of St Petroc to hide. That’s not his real name – he has taken on a new identity and it’s quickly clear that he’s in some kind of witness protection scheme or similar. Lila is a young girl living in a surfer commune on the edge of town – a surfer commune that is run more like a cult, with the rather nasty Noah at its head. As the book begins, Lila has been instrumental in abducting a young man on Noah’s instructions, and now she’s afraid of the consequences. When Tom and Lila meet, their lives quickly become mixed up with each other, and each puts the other in even greater danger. In the meantime, the mysterious Morrigan seems to hold an almost occult power over the townspeople, all in the name of the Old Religion…

This book is billed as being for fans of Peter May. I wonder why? I don’t remember Peter May ever writing anything with an occult storyline, nor using so much foul language including repeated use of the “c”-word, nor being unable to determine when to use “who” and “whom” correctly, nor filling his books with repeated episodes of violence, including rape, every few pages. Odd! Had I been trying to attract people who might enjoy this, I’d have been more inclined to mention Mo Hayder, or one of the other authors who specialise in violence and nastiness. There’s a market out there for this kind of book undoubtedly, but I’m not sure Peter May fans would be a big part of that market. This one sure isn’t, anyway.

It’s well written, apart from the too frequent grammatical errors, but I was reading an ARC so perhaps they’ll be sorted before the final version is printed. The characterisation is very good, especially of Lila. She left home young, and has no-one to look out for her. Having drifted into a bad situation she’s now trying to find a way out, and Waites does a good job of portraying her as a mix of vulnerability and strength. Tom is also done reasonably well, though with more of the stereotypical elements of the routine thriller hero – a troubled past, in danger in the present, well able to handle himself physically, but with a complete inability to fend off the women who find him irresistible. Uh-huh, well, not all women, obviously.

But everyone is unlikeable, even Lila, whom (or perhaps in the spirit of the book, I should say who) I really wanted to like. She’s quite willing to be just as horrible to everyone around her as they are to her – credible, undoubtedly, given her background, but it meant my sympathy for her situation wore off after a bit. Apart from Tom, all the men are drug-pushers or losers, violent and cruel, or occasionally weak and pathetic, and potential or actual rapists. There are very few women in it, at least up to the point where I abandoned it – around the 60% mark, and other than Lila they don’t play a significant role. I flicked ahead to the end and got the impression that may change later in the book.

Martyn Waites

At that 60% mark the three stories were still trailing along without us being any closer to finding out how they were connected – Tom’s past, the young man’s abduction, the mysterious Morrigan – with Lila providing some kind of vague link. I admit I was bored waiting, but it was really the constant episodes of violence that annoyed me – not in a squeamish way, they’re not overly graphic, but just because it all became repetitive and made the tone unrelentingly miserable. I prefer even crime novels to have some light and shade in them.

Despite abandoning it, I’m giving the book three stars. It’s not to my taste but I think it’s pretty well done for all that, and I’m sure people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it. In fact, it’s considerably better than the one Mo Hayder book through which I had the misfortune to wade. But as for Peter May fans, well, I’d suggest we all sit back and wait for the next Peter May book instead. Why do publishers do that?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Zaffre, via Amazon Vine UK.

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Snap by Belinda Bauer

Curate’s egg…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When eleven-year-old Jack and his two younger sisters are left in their broken-down car while their mother goes off to phone for help, Jack is left in charge. This is a responsibility that will weigh heavily on him over the next few years when first his mother never returns and then later his father too disappears. Meantime Catherine While, heavily pregnant with her first child, is terrified when a burglar leaves a knife beside her pillow with a note that says simply: I could have killed you. For reasons of her own, Catherine decides to tell neither her husband Adam nor the police about this episode – a decision she will learn to regret.

Following the outcome of his last case, The Shut Eye, DCI Marvel has been shunted out of the Met, and isn’t best pleased when he ends up in the countryside – not his natural habitat. He’s even more annoyed when the first case that’s handed to him is to investigate a series of burglaries by a perpetrator codenamed Goldilocks. Marvel sees himself as a murder detective and feels his talents are being wasted. But he gets his wish anyway, as he is soon involved in investigating the unsolved murder of Jack’s mother…

I suspect my reading of lots of compact, tightly plotted classic crime recently has made me even less tolerant than before of the over-padding of much contemporary crime fiction. This book unfortunately takes about half its length to reveal what it’s going to be about, and as soon as it does the whodunit along with the how become pretty obvious, so that the second half is mostly spent waiting to see how Bauer is going to handle the ending. The motive is still left to be uncovered which means that it maintains some suspense, though, and there are some little side mysteries along the way that add interest; and Bauer’s writing is always laced with a nice mixture of dark and light so that in the pacier parts it’s an entertaining read. But I found that I was skipping entire pages at about the thirdway point – never a good sign! – because I was tired of the endless, rather repetitive setting up and wanted to get to the bit where the two threads finally came together as it was obvious they would, and we found out what the book was actually going to be about.

Belinda Bauer

Unfortunately I also found I had lots of credibility issues with too many aspects of the book, from the idea of Jack managing to hold his family together in the way he does, to Catherine’s reasons for not saying anything about the threats she’s receiving, to Marvel’s policing methods. I tried my best, though, to switch off my disbelief and go with the flow. And, happily, from about halfway through when the two stories finally begin to converge, it becomes a more interesting read, and I found that finally I was turning pages quickly for the right reasons. The pace improves and there’s quite a lot of Bauer’s usual humour in the interactions between the various police officers on the case. Bauer is always great at making her child characters feel believable, and she does here too with Jack, even though I found his actions less than credible. While the main storyline itself heads on a straight line to exactly where one expects, there’s an intriguing subplot in the second half that kept my interest. But, unfortunately, the thrillerish ending fell off the credibility tightrope again.

So, although there are some enjoyable aspects of the book once it picks up speed, the slowness of the first half combined with the requirement to suspend disbelief more than I could manage left me feeling that it’s not really close to her best.

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

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Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!

I don’t want to say too much about the plot since it’s always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who’s only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.

The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William’s new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as ‘the young woman’, ‘the old man’, etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they’re not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we’re not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.

I can see her, evil cow, trying to keep up with Veitch. She’s holding William’s hand and every time he stumbles, because she’s going way too fast for his little legs, she pulls him to his feet and keeps walking.
Poor little mite.
I’d like to push on up behind her and jostle her to the ground next time she does that and then, as she stumbles and falls, I’d take little William by the hand and be away into the crowd.
He’d look up at me in surprise and I’d look down at him and smile and say something sweet and kind and he’d smile back as we disappeared away together forever.
You know what, I might even kiss him on the forehead. That’s what you do, that is.
Kiss little children.

Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn’t have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it’s perfectly possible I’m a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey’s insane world view that he’d made it seem almost logical.

Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn’t stop it from seeping into the reader’s imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn’t have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey’s narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there’s a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it’s that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.

Iain Maitland

However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey’s unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I’m still waiting…

I believe this is Maitland’s fictional début – well, I’m kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you’ll either stop for good very quickly or you won’t want to stop at all…

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

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The End of the Web by George Sims

Beware the spider!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Selver’s marriage has never been the same since his young son died, and he has taken to having a string of short affairs. When we meet him he is just about to embark on a new one, with a beautiful young woman called Judy Latimer. But Leo is worried about some business deal he seems to be involved in with a man he doesn’t really trust. Soon things are going to turn nasty – very nasty – for Leo and his business partner. And it will be up to Ed Buchanan, former policeman and old family friend, to try to work out what’s going on before things get even nastier…

This may be one of the vaguest little intros I’ve ever written and that’s quite intentional. One of the things I’ve noticed most since I’ve being reading some of these older crime novels is that authors were far more willing to mess with the reader’s expectations and play with structure than we tend to think. This book is a prime example of that. The beginning follows a fairly conventional pattern for a thriller – ordinary man caught up in a situation that brings him into danger – and it looks as though it will go on in the traditional way, with him struggling to extricate himself from the mess he’s in. But then the author turns it on its head, and the book suddenly veers off in an entirely unexpected direction. I was taken aback, I must admit, but it works well, lifting this out of standard thriller territory into something a little more original.

Published in 1976, the book is set only a few years earlier in 1973, mostly in London though with trips out to the countryside and also over to Amsterdam. As with most thrillers (back in those happy far-off days, before turgid soggy middles and endless angst became obligatory), it goes at a cracking pace but, despite this, the author creates a good feel for the time period through references to some of the music and clothes, etc., and his sense of place is just as good.

The characterisation is also very good, achieved with an admirable brevity of description. Leo isn’t exactly likeable, especially to a modern (female) audience who might feel that he should have spent a bit more time thinking about his wife’s feelings rather than indulging in sad, middle-aged fantasies about young women, but his grief over the death of his son is real and makes it possible for the reader to sympathise. He’s no hero, as he discovered himself during the war, but when the chips are down he does his best.

Ed, who becomes the main character as the book progresses, is however an excellent hero! Ex-boxer, ex-policeman, all round nice guy with a bit of a romantic streak, he manages the tricky balancing act of being tough with the baddies but gentle and caring with the women in his life – not just his romantic interest, but with Leo’s wife, whom he looks on almost as a surrogate mother. And remarkably for the period, he doesn’t patronise them! It’s a short thriller, but Sims still finds room for Ed to develop over time, so that in the course of the novel he gets to know himself better and make changes in the way he lives his life.

Can’t find an author pic, so here’s a nice spider instead…

There’s plenty of action and a plot that hints at what I discovered later from Martin Edwards’ intro to be true – that Sims himself had connections to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during the war. There are some seriously chilling moments and some touching ones, and a dash of humour from time to time to keep the thing from becoming too bleak. The writing is very good and the pace never falters. Bearing in mind that it’s the ’70s, Sims seems to be quite forward-thinking, managing to avoid the usual pitfalls of blatant sexism, etc., and he in fact paints a positive picture of the burgeoning multi-culturalism that was beginning to really take off in London at that period. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and will certainly look out for more from Sims. I hope the British Library will resurrect more of these thrillers – from this example, they’ll be just as enjoyable as the mystery novels they’ve been re-issuing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

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Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

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

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

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

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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

Let’s twist again…

🙂 🙂 😐

Laura and Kit are newly in love. Kit is an eclipse-chaser, travelling the world to experience full solar eclipses as often as he can. So they’ve gone together to a festival at Lizard’s Point in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse – Laura’s first. Still on a high following this semi-mystical experience, as they make their way back to the festival site Laura comes across two people who at first she thinks are making love. But then she sees the girl’s face, frozen in shock, and reassesses what it is she’s actually seeing. Now she’s going to be the major witness in a rape trial. Fifteen years later, Laura and Kit are still together, awaiting the birth of their twins, but hiding from the world. The book tells the story of how the events after the eclipse have led them to this…

The beginning of the book is excellent, with a very realistic portrayal of an attack and subsequent trial where the whole thing hinges on the matter of consent. Jamie, the man accused of raping Beth, comes from a wealthy, respectable family who can afford the best lawyers. He said she gave consent/she said she didn’t. It’s up to the jury to decide, and Laura is the only witness who can give them an independent account of what she saw.

Kelly writes very well, even when she’s using my pet hate first person, present tense for the parts of the book relating to the present day. Laura tells most of the story, both of what happened back in 1999 and now, while we also hear Kit’s point of view on the present day events. Kelly shows how difficult these cases are by letting us see everything Laura saw and yet leaving some small area of doubt as to whether Laura has interpreted it correctly. She shows not only that we bring our own beliefs and prejudices to things we witness, but also how a good lawyer can chip away at a witness until doubt creeps into even the witness’s own mind, much less the jury’s.

Unfortunately, the book also follows many of the on-going identikit features of the domestic thriller that drive me crazy: skipping between past and present, multiple points of view, the aforesaid present tense – the full ticklist. Worse, it’s another one of those where the narrators know all kind of stuff which they carefully conceal from the reader in an attempt to build false suspense. Some dreadful incident or incidents have happened in the intervening years, changing the course of Laura’s life and leaving her suffering from extreme anxiety. But we don’t learn what until nearly two-thirds of the way through, by which time I was so annoyed I didn’t care any more. It’s a pity, because there is a suspenseful element as to how the story is going to play out which would have been sufficient, so it really wasn’t necessary to clumsily withhold stuff that had already happened.

Erin Kelly

Having said that, when the book finally reaches the point of beginning to reveal all, it becomes progressively less credible with each passing twist. And my, there are a lot of them! Too many. And the final couple are so silly and pointless they take away the last shreds of realism, leaving me sad that a book that began as something thoughtful and well-written ended up like every other trashy domestic thriller of the last five years. Oh well, no doubt this trend will end one day – can’t come soon enough for my liking. I’d like to see writers of the undoubted quality of Erin Kelly produce something with a little more heft and originality and less reliance on false suspense and incredible twists. As these things go, though, this is as good as most and better than many, which I’m afraid is as much praise as I can give it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Sister act…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than Sharon Bolton when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. We know from the prologue that the balloon crashes leaving only one survivor. The police soon identify her as Jessica Lane, but she has walked away from the crash and they can’t find her. They don’t know why she’s made no effort to contact the authorities – perhaps she’s badly hurt or concussed and confused. So the search is on. But the killer also knows there’s a survivor, and he’s determined to get to her first. But maybe she has reasons for not wanting to be found…

The thing is that you’d imagine that twelve corpses before we even get past the prologue might make this quite a harrowing read. But not at all! Bolton negotiates the difficult task of marrying together a serious plot with some delicious humour to keep the whole thing enjoyable. Bolton doesn’t ignore the grief that the survivor feels for the death of her sister, but the need to survive means she has to put it aside as much as possible and concentrate on getting to safety. The underlying story is actually quite dark and there is some gore, but Bolton doesn’t linger over it in too much detail. If you think too much about the plot, it does cross pretty far over the credibility line in several places, but Bolton doesn’t give you time to think about it – she races the story along, with some fine characterisation, some twists that are perfectly timed and believable within the context, and lots and lots of action.

The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

As a result, though, it’s not an easy one to write a review about since almost anything is a potential spoiler, so I won’t say any more about the plot. But I must mention the nuns, especially the wonderful Sister Belinda, who is my favourite character of the year so far! Bella and Jessica had been very close so Jessica is well known to the other nuns and a favourite amongst them. So the police feel it’s quite possible that if Jessica is confused, she might make for the convent as a place of safety. Sister Belinda is an avid watcher of old TV police dramas of The Sweeney variety in her recreation time, so she has a fabulously clichéd vocabulary picked up from these shows and is super excited to get the chance to put her ‘expertise’ to use during the investigation. She’s just so much fun…

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

Loved this one! A perfect mix of dark and light, superbly clever plotting, constant action and hugely entertaining – you can expect to see Bolton appear yet again on my shortlist for Crime Book of the Year.

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

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Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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