Wednesday, 13 September 2017

BLOG TOUR! House of Spines by Michael Malone - BLOG TOUR!

This is the first novel by Michael Malone that I’ve read, an author who from what I gather used to write gritty noir and has now moved into psychological suspense. House of Spines is more than psychological suspense however, the author blending the genre with the gothic supernatural. Ran McGhie is a young man with mental health issues, suffering from bipolar depression. The nature of his illness is such that his moods swing from the deepest, darkest despair to manic elation. Sometimes he becomes delusional, even hallucinates. He’s also a man who has suffered devastating family trauma. At the start of the novel he has just learnt that he has inherited Newton Hall, a huge house, from his mother’s side of the family. A relative Ran had never met has left him the property complete with extensive library. As a struggling writer, this is a dream come true. He moves in but almost immediately feels that there is something wrong, the house having a disquieting atmosphere. Coupled with meeting unpleasant relatives for the first time – Ran’s been told that they’ve been generously compensated in the will and have no designs on the house, but can he be sure that this is indeed the case? - and already struggling with burgeoning loneliness having separated from his wife, it isn’t long before his precarious grip on sanity is feeling the strain.

As mentioned this is a bit of a mash up of genres. We have psychological suspense complete with unreliable narrator and we have gothic horror complete with a haunted house, a woman’s spirit stuck in a mirror trying to claim Ran’s soul for her own, or is she? The two elements complement each other well and the author does a good job of building the tension as the story unfolds. The characterisation is spot on too, I certainly warmed to Ran who cuts a fragile and tragic figure, while some of the antagonists – two in particular - are shocking in the lengths they’ll go to get what they want. But really, it’s Newton Hall itself which steals the show, the property itself taking on a life of its own and making its presence felt on every page. This result is a creepy and atmospheric tale.

Psychological thrillers are currently all the rage but as with any new trend in the literary world, the danger is the marketplace gets saturated. I would recommend House of Spines to fans of the genre as something that dares to push the boundaries and be a little different from the competition.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, 4 September 2017

Crime and the Craft by Mike Neville

Freemasonry is a subject that divides a lot of people. Depending on who you ask it is either a benign fraternal organisation that is often involved in much charitable work, an outlandish pastime where grown men roll up their trouser leg and perform silly rituals, or a sinister and secretive cult that fosters corruption and usurps democracy. Oftentimes people see it as a mixture of the three, its features encompassing the full scale depending on time, place, and individual member. There is certainly no shortage of books critical of Freemasonry. On the pulp-fiction end one has writers such as Dan Brown, who’s third novel in the Robert Langdon series features the Masons in the same way his more famous title, the Da Vinci Code,  featured Opus Dei. On the non-fiction end there are authors such as Stephen Knight and Martin Short, both of whom published works that were extremely critical of Freemasonry. Concern over Freemasonry has on occasion been a matter of public debate, too.  This has most often centred on Freemasonry in the police. For example, in 1999 the Labour Government attempted to implement a voluntary register of Masonic police officers, but the measure failed as more than two thirds of officers refused to respond. More recently, London mayor Sidique Khan has ruled out a register in the Met, saying such a measure would be illegal.

Mike Neville, the author of Crime and Craft, is both a former Metropolitan Police Officer (retiring as a Detective Chief Inspector) and a Freemason. This is perhaps surprising when one first gets hold of this book as its full title reads “Crime and the Craft: Masonic Involvement in Murder, Treason and Scandal”. So is he ashamed of his Freemasonry? Is his book an expose of some grand conspiracy which proves the Craft’s critics right? Well not exactly. The title isn’t so much misleading as broad brush. While it might imply that all the Masons mentioned within its pages are villains and gangsters, in actual fact many were on the side of the righteous. So, “Masonic involvement” might mean Masons as wrongdoers, but equally it might mean Masons as those enforcing the law, bringing villains to justice, or even as victims. 

Masonry has certainly been widespread amongst the aristocracy, within government and the police, and so this book touches upon many of the more famous events of British political and legal history. From the English Civil War, through Jack the Ripper, to the bringing down of the Kray Twins, there are few events that haven’t been touched upon in some way by Freemasonry.  Reflecting this, the author has penned a potted history, each chapter focusing on a different event, giving a general overview and detailing the Masonic link. This is no anti-Mason tract and the author is carefully fair and even handed. That isn’t to say that he glosses over or makes excuses for Freemasons who’ve done wrong. Quite the reverse in fact. For example, in the chapter on corruption in the Met’s vice squad in the 1970’s, Neville is excoriating about the infamous Chief Superintendent Bill Moody, a keen Mason, and surely one of the most corrupt, dishonest and greedy officers ever to serve amongst the Met’s ranks. However, whereas Knight and Short have pointed to officers’ like Moody as evidence of the Mason’s intrinsic rottenness and capacity to corrupt, Neville points to other officers who helped bring Moody and others to justice who were themselves Masons. A good example of these is Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ron Stevenson (himself a Mason) who after helping to bring Moody to justice went onto head up A10, the Met’s internal affairs division. To be sure Short mentions honest Mason’s in his own work, but Neville is much more even handed.

Crime and the Craft is a fascinating book that sheds light on British legal history while detailing a colourful cast of characters who were Freemasons. Like the wider population,  some of these people were good, some were indifferent and some were wicked. The author stresses this throughout and his thesis is that Freemasonry is like any organisation, reflective of the wide gamut of human nature. While it is doubtful that this account will assuage the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists and Freemasonry’s various critics, Neville has produced a valuable and balanced addition to the literature on the subject.

5 out of 5 stars

Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes by Anthony Nott

Tony Nott was a senior officer with Dorset Police when he decided take a stint in Kosovo heading up the British Forensic Team. This was just after NATO’s successful intervention in the province that put an end to Serb atrocities there. Tony got the job and the second chapter in this book (the first introduces us to the author and his work in the Dorset Police) details his experiences in Kosovo. The chapter gives some insight into the harrowing nature of his work but is a little too brief for my liking. 

After returning briefly to England, Tony then took a job in Bosnia with the United Nations International Police Task Force (IPTF). The author dedicates a good four or  five chapters to his experience in Bosnia and this is a much more interesting section of the book. There is the case of Fr. Tomislav Matanovic,  taken from his house by Republica Srbska police (Republica Srbska being the ethnically cleansed enclave carved out of Bosnia by Serb nationalists), executed and dumped in well. Despite Tony’s team amassing a wealth of evidence the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. The IPTF also came across human trafficking and the trafficking of women into sexual servitude. This brought him into contact with Milorad Milokovic and the organised crime ring he ran. The Milakovic Mafia, as the IPTF investigators dubbed them, trafficked women into prostitution and bought off or intimidated any local officials who crossed them. Tony and his team had more success here, bringing the family to justice. 

After Bosnia, Tony then took a posting in Iraq. Unlike Kosovo and Bosnia where he arrived in the aftermath of war and his role was one of helping a country return to normality, Iraq was in the middle of a burgeoning civil war. This was a much more dangerous posting, yet again his job was to try to help create a functioning local police. This section of the book is the most compelling, even better than the section on Bosnia. Not least this is due to his account of the investigation into the death of Margaret Hassan, a British woman living in Iraq and working as an aid worker, who was abducted and callously executed. Tony takes us through this investigation and we learn of who was behind the kidnap, a Sheikh Hassan. Despite his best efforts the Sheikh was to evade justice.

The final chapter of the book details Tony’s last deployment, to Palestine to help train local police there. This is an uneventful chapter and really seems to have been tacked on. Either not much happened of note during this deployment or the author is keeping his counsel. Either way, this in minutia highlights a problem with the book. While on the whole I thought this a good and illuminating book, it suffers from problems of brevity and a certain stilted and dry tone. An example, in the section on Bosnia we learn of a group of apparent nuclear smugglers offering to sell Red Mercury to the highest bidder. A contingent of French soldiers goes charging off to round the smugglers up only to find it’s a con - Red Mercury being a notorious urban myth, there simply is no such substance. This is a great story, but is covered in just a few pages. Why? Is the fault with the publisher - Pen and Sword seem to like to keep their titles around the 200 page mark - or the author? Perhaps by the nature of his job, Tony simply is not allowed to tell us more than he has. Either way, this book would have been better if it had been allowed to breathe, the stories and anecdotes expanded.

That all said, Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes is a great book and certainly worth a read. The Iraq section on it’s own elevates it above similar tomes .

4 out of 5 stars. 

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef

This is one for my fellow writers. Brevity is a guide on writing short-form fiction, flash fiction really. It’s not really a form I’m familiar with, as an aspiring writer I’m much more focused on writing novel length work. That said, we all need to edit, to be concise in our wordsmithery. In that vein, the same techniques that can be used for flash fiction can be utilised in writing longer, narrative fiction, namely brevity, hence the title.

David Galef’s book dedicates a chapter to various forms of short/flash fiction, from vignettes and anecdotes to soliloquies. Then there’s the stuff aimed more for people like myself, writers of longer form fiction. So there’s a chapter on character sketches, another on settings, there’s even a chapter on surrealism. 

As with many books of this ilk - e.g. writing guides - there are examples and exercise at the end of each chapter to help you refine the art. All in all this is a good book which will help writers of all striped to either produce short/flash fiction or edit their work more effectively. I recommend this book heartily, oh and if you’re wondering why this review is so short, I’m practicing!

5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

This is a debut novel by the author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian Muslim with a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. The story follows Detective Esa Khattak and his colleague, Sergeant Rachel Getty, as they investigate the death of Christopher Drayton who fell to his death. Was it an accident or was he pushed? Detective Esa was formerly with Toronto homicide, then counterintelligence, and now heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section (CPS) basically a unit that takes on sensitive cases involving minority groups. So why has he been called in to investigate what looks like the simple accidental death of an unassuming businessman? Without giving away too many spoilers, it soon becomes clear that Drayton’s death might not be all that it seems and in fact is inextricably linked to the genocide that was Bosnia in the early 1990’s

I found The Unquiet Dead an odd novel in some ways, for in a sense it has two faces. In one sense, it’s an almost sedate whodunit harking back to the Golden Age. We have a relatively large cast of characters and the protagonists – Detective Esa and Sergeant Getty – must decide who amongst them might have had motive to do Christopher Drayton in. There’s very little violence in this novel and next to no gore. Even the actual murder – if indeed Drayton was a victim of foul play – is relatively benign (at least by the standards of most modern-day crime fiction). But then there’s the other “face” to the novel, the motive for doing the victim in, namely the mass slaughter that occurred during the Bosnian war. As a former current affairs journalist, I well remember the horror of Bosnia and the sense of shame at how Western governments failed to act to stop the mass rapes, the pillage, the ethnic cleansing – a mealy-mouthed euphemism for mass-killing if there ever was one - the murders. These horrors inculcate the novel from the very beginning and stand in stark contrast with the almost amiable tone the story would take otherwise.

The Unquiet Dead is about secrets and whether anyone can ever truly escape their past. In this way, the violence and brutality of the Bosnian conflict can never truly be buried. Despite the best efforts of those who would rather it went away, the conflict and its aftermath cannot fail but rear its ugly head to breach the equanimity of modern day Canadian society. On this level, the novel worked well and kept me engaged. Equally, however, it depends on what you want from your crime fiction. Personally, I prefer my crime novels to be grittier and more to the noir end of the spectrum and The Unquiet Dead, despite its grim subject matter, is too placid for my liking.

That said, this is an impressive debut and I certainly will be looking out for more from this author.

3 out of 5 stars.   

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Kompromat by Stanley Johnson

With Brexit, the election of Donald Trump to the White House and allegations that the Russian security services might have helped put him there, it is surprising there haven’t been more novels to attempt to tackle such themes. Perhaps this is the first in a new trend, that just as after 9/11 not a few novelists attempted to tackle the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, a wave of literary efforts attempting to explain the strange new world we’re faced with is just upon the horizon. If this is so, Stanley Johnson might at first glance appear an unlikely trailblazer. He is after all the father of Boris, the quirky and some might say controversial politician, Foreign Secretary and leading Brexiteer. This would be unfair however as Stanley is the author of twenty-five previous books, both fiction and non-fiction, a former Conservative member of the European Parliament, and a leading environmental campaigner. The Johnson family are also known to speak their minds, even if this might upset their most famous member, as his sister Rachel (Stanley’s daughter) did when she joined the Liberal Democrats in protest at the Conservative’s support for Brexit. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Stanley has penned a satire of the current geopolitical environment.  But is it any good?

With such broad themes one might imagine Stanley to have produced a doorstopper of a book, certainly before I received my print copy from the publishers I was expecting something along the lines of 500+ pages. In fact, Kompromat is exactly 302 pages, which while normal for a typical work of fiction, when one considers the complex ideas involved and the fact that the book has a cast of over 100 (there’s a 5-page cast of characters listing at the beginning) might come as a surprise. Obviously, most of the characters prove to be walk-on parts, the main character perhaps being Edward Barnard, a leading Conservative Party Brexiteer. I say he’s the main character as he appears most in the novel but close on his heels are the Russian President Igor Popov, the controversial American businessman and Republican Presidential candidate Ronald C. Craig, and Mabel Killick, the UK Home Secretary and later Prime Minister.

One of the fun aspects of this book is playing guess who. Igor Popov is obviously Vladimir Putin, Ronald Craig is Trump, while Mabel Hillick is Theresa May. There’s a character based on Cameron, a Rupert Murdoch, a Hillary Clinton, and yes, a surprisingly small part for the “ebullient and charismatic” former Mayor of London, Harry Stokes. You might assume that such a large globetrotting cast might make the novel unwieldy or a mess of competing narratives, but not a bit of it. This is a novel that trots along at quite a pace. The author does an admirably good job of joining all the threads and at no point does the novel meander or the plot get lost. As befitting a satire it’s also a surprisingly light-hearted novel, not a mean feat considering the weighty topics that it addresses. There are twists and turns galore, with not a few surprises. There are also some laugh out loud moments. Despite all this, Stanley Johnson spins an all too plausible tale and while I’m not suggesting that he knows anything we don’t, one just has to watch the news after reading the book to know that some of what he portrays might just be on the mark.

That all said I did have a couple of issues with Kompromat and strangely it’s that what makes the book so good also does it an injustice. Its fast pace, multiple international settings and global cast of characters, while enjoyable, mean that there’s little depth here. Apart perhaps from Edward Barnard and his wife we never really get into the heads or hearts of any of the other characters. Similarly, there’s a feel of frivolity to the novel, which while in some senses is refreshing in a political story – the genre can all too often be dauntingly heavy or preachy – can at times come across as trite. Finally, due to its broad scope, the author can’t help but neglect aspects which depending on the reader might feel strange. An example of this is that Simon Henley (a thinly disguised Nigel Farage) hardly gets a mention. I’m not a fan of UKIP, but a novel that tackles Brexit while hardly featuring the party and its most famous leader, in my opinion makes a very odd oversight.

So back to my original question, is Kompromat any good? Well yes, it is. All in all, it’s an enjoyable satire, a romp if you will, while still being all too scarily believable.

4 out of 5 stars