Saturday, 18 March 2017

Written In Bones by James Oswald

This is the first title by this author that I have read and is the seventh in his series of Inspector Tony McLean novels. I’ve heard a lot about the author James Oswald and have intended to read his books for a while, not least due to his interesting publishing journey. I read that he found it hard to get an agent or a publisher because his novels crossed genres. Their crime novels but with a supernatural bent and that apparently confused people in the industry. So eventually he self-published Natural Causes and The Book of Souls (the first two Tony McLean novels) and to cut a long story short, they succeeded and the traditional publishing houses came calling. It’s a great story and for an aspiring writer like myself, an inspiration.

So anyway, I’ve had both Natural Causes and The Book of Souls on my Kindle for a while now and for various reasons never got around to reading them. Written in Bones came up on NetGalley, the review website I use, and accepting that I was diving in to a series at book seven and thus things might go over my head, I requested it. I’ve now read it and, simply, wow. I can now see what all the fuss is about.

Written in Bones finds Tony McLean having to deal with a corpse that’s fallen from a great height into a tree. How did it get there? Was it dead before it fell to become impaled in the tree, or did the fall kill him? Things are complicated by the fact that the young son of a murdered gangster was the first person to find the body. Was this pure coincidence or is someone trying to send a macabre message? Furthermore, the dead man is a former cop, imprisoned for corruption, before apparently turning over a new leaf to found a successful drug counselling charity.

As I say, this is my first taste of James Oswald’s work, but it certainly won’t be my last. While Written in Bones is number seven in the series, it can be read as a standalone. Reading the novel, it’s clear that there is back story that one is missing out if one hasn’t read the previous volumes, but the author explains what’s necessary when needs be without overburdening the newbie reader with voluminous explanation. That said, if you like Written in Bones as much as I did you’ll be snapping up the author’s back catalogue.

One of the pleasures of being a book reviewer is discovering a new author. I’m late to the James Oswald party but now I’m here I intend to indulge! I already have the first two volumes to read, soon I’ll be buying the rest.

An excellent read, 5 out of 5 stars. 

Pigeon-Blood Red by Ed Duncan

Pigeon Blood Red takes its title from the McGuffin of the tale, a valuable necklace made up of pigeon blood red rubies. A businessman with a gambling habit who’s in hock to a loan shark happens upon the loan shark’s necklace and steals it. Off he runs to Honolulu where his estranged wife is holidaying. The loan shark tasks Rico, his top hoodlum, to go after the businessman to get the necklace back.

This is a standard gangster tale. I don’t know if it’s the author’s first novel but apparently, it’s the first of a trilogy. Pigeon Blood Red is a solid effort, the characters are well rounded, the narrative unfolds well enough, the sense of place in Honolulu is convincingly brought to life.

For all that though there’s something lacking here. This isn’t really a criticism as such. In a crowded field (crime fiction is possibly one of the biggest genres there is, with new titles arriving all the time) it’s difficult for a story to stand out from the crowd. Some people say it’s about originality, that the author must tell an original tale to be successful. But is that really the case? Are not many a title alike? So why do some become wildly popular and successful and others don’t? My own view is that a story needs a little magic fairy dust, that intangible quality that makes it shine. We know it when we see it, but when pushed to explain what it is, it remains frustratingly ephemeral.

Pigeon Blood Red is a point in hand. Everything ticks the right boxes here, but for some reason it just didn’t shine for me. That’s not to say that the author doesn’t have potential, he does. Pigeon Blood Red was enjoyable enough and like many an author he may well hone his craft over time, future books might well hit the sweet spot.

This is a solidly told tale and if you like gangster tales, tales of high stakes manhunts and people out of their depth, then you could well do worse.
3 out of 5 stars. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

BLOG TOUR! Deadly Game by Matt Johnson BLOG TOUR!

This is the author’s second novel and follows on from his debut Wicked Game. Once again, we join ex-SAS officer and Metropolitan Police Inspector Robert Finlay, who in the aftermath of the murder of former SAS soldiers in the first novel, is something of a toxic quality in the Met. Colleagues see him as a bullet magnet and many don’t want to work with him, while some of his superiors guess that he took it into his own hands to put a stop to the murders and don’t fully trust him. So not sure what to do with him, he’s assigned to a unit investigating sex-trafficking. This isn’t only the decision of the police, for Finlay’s MI5 liaison, Toni Fellowes, has her own agenda. She helps engineer his transfer to the unit, and his choice of holiday destination for a recuperation break to deal with his PTSD, as she needs help infiltrating a Romanian family who own the publishing house that has printed a controversial tell-all memoir by a former soldier. 

To say Deadly Game is brilliant would do it an injustice. This is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years. I subscribe to the author’s round-robin email and in one he expressed his fears about writing a second novel. Could it ever live up to the first? Might it be a disappointment? I reviewed Wicked Game and while it was very good, it suffered from certain problems. Most noticeably it was a novel of two halves, the first half reading like a memoir, the second like a thriller. Deadly Game has no such qualms, it knows exactly what it is: a thriller. While it is undoubtedly based on the authors long experiences as both a soldier and a police officer and Johnson has clearly researched the issues well, the book is all the better for having a strong narrative purpose from the outset. 

There are several threads running through Deadly Game which ring remarkably true. Operation Cyclone features strongly, the CIA-led effort to arm and train the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation. While a character called Chad Collins, the author of the tell-all book MI5 want to put a stop to, is clearly modelled on Philip Sessarego, aka Tom Carew, the author of a book called Jihad! Sessarego had claimed he was a member of the SAS who in the eighties was tasked with infiltrating Afghanistan and training the mujahedeen, only to be exposed as a fake. As with the character of Collins in Deadly Game, Sessarego had in fact never passed SAS selection. 

This brings me to an issue with Deadly Game, one that plagues many a thriller. In the novel, the intelligence services are desperate for Operation Cyclone not to be known to the wider public, fearing the consequences. This is a feature of many a thriller – the intelligence services/government’s fear of exposure and a willingness to do anything to prevent it. But due to a combination of public apathy and cynicism, the public rarely react to such things. Operation Cyclone is now well known and has caused hardly a stir. Similarly, as far back as 1998, revered SAS legend Ken Connor, published a history of the SAS in which he revealed members of the service had trained mujahedeen fighters in Scotland. This again features in Deadly Game as something the public must never know, but upon publication of Connor’s book, reaction was muted. More recently, we’ve had inquiries which revealed the Government misled us over Iraq and Libya, once again with little public reaction. While Mervyn King the former governor of the Bank of England, is on record as saying he can’t understand why there hasn’t been a greater reaction to the banks malfeasance in the financial crisis. Yes, people have been angry, but there has been very little in the way of actual action. 

So, reading Deadly Game, as with other thrillers, I wondered whether the intelligence services really would go to such efforts to prevent the truth from coming out. If recent history teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment really has little to fear. Though perhaps this is to look at things the wrong way. As Mervyn King’s comments show, perhaps the establishment expects more and are as surprised as the rest of us when they get away with their wrongdoing. And maybe the public has the last laugh after all, for what was the rise of Farage, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, if not a reaction to all the illegality and lies told us over the years? Perhaps the intelligence services, while not knowing the exact form the anger will take, are right to fear exposure, knowing that in some way the drip, drip, drip will come back to haunt us all. 

One niggling point I must mention, and really this is the only flaw I found in Deadly Game, the author repeatedly referred to a female firearms officer as a “WPC”. With respect to the author, it shows how long he’s been out of the service as female police officers are now simply PCs like their male counterparts. This is a minor criticism and does not reflect the author’s portrayal of women in the novel. There are numerous, strong female characters in Johnson’s books and in fact it was for this reason the use of WPC was so galling. The anachronism stuck out because the book is so good and I only mention it in the hope he will take notice for the third title. 

As I hope that I have conveyed in this review, Deadly Game is a fantastic novel. It is a page-turning thriller but so much more. It really made me think about the world, not just terrorism, but the lengths the secret state will go to to prevent secrets from spilling, whether they are justified, the implications on public life. I can’t recommend this book enough and can’t wait until the third instalment 

5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

This is a police procedural set in Japan. Our protagonist is Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo's homicide department from some provincial backwater, before which he trained with the police in America. His new partner is Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai, a no-nonsense, tough, female cop. They’re assigned to a case nobody much cares for, the previous investigator having committed suicide. The crime Iwata and Sakai are now tasked with solving is the wholesale slaughter of a Korean family in their home. This case is of little interest to the department for two reasons: one the ethnicity of the victims, Japanese society characterised by deep-seated racism and prejudice towards Korean migrants, and two, the fact that their deaths have coincided with that of a famous actress, her passing attracting huge media interest.

Iwata and Sakai start to investigate the slaying of the Korean family and they discover a black sun was daubed inside the house. More killings follow and they soon realise that they have a serial killer on their hands. The Black Sun Killer, as they quickly daub him, is immensely strong having torn the hearts from his victims’ bodies. But he’s also incredibly clever and leaves virtually no trace. Iwata becomes obsessed with the case and with dogged determination tries to make headway, despite hostility from colleagues and interference from above.

Blue Light Yokohama is a gripping read; it’s a long book, running to 448 pages, but they swept by. I’m not normally one for serial killer fiction but this had me hooked. Both Iwata and Sakai are compelling characters, flawed and single minded in equal measure. If that sounds like a cliché -the maverick cop with a past - and in some ways, it is, the author carries it off with panache and a certain originality. For example, Iwata’s tragic history with his American wife was powerfully done and I felt for the character.

That all said, I had some issues with this novel. Normally in this kind of book the author leaves clues throughout the narrative as to the conclusion. Obviously if this is too obvious, the reader sees it coming a mile off. The ideal is to have the reader guessing until the final reveal, but then have them saying, “oh right, yeah I see that now.” What you don’t want is the author keeping everything to himself and then just dumping it on you in the final couple of chapters. That’s what Blue Light Yokohama does. While there are a few clues as to the killer’s identity – I guessed a few chapters from the end, much of their motivation is told to the reader in the last few pages. More concerning, there’s a major plot twist involving one of the main characters that just comes out of nowhere, a complete bolt out of the blue.

These aren’t major issues and I really did get through this novel in just a matter of days. I understand that it’s part of a series and we’ll be seeing more of Inspector Kosuke Iwata. I hope so.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Blog Tour! Cursed by Thomas Enger

This is the fourth in a series of novels penned by this author (the others being Burned, Pierced, Scarred, respectively) and features recurring characters from the series, not least the two protagonists, Henning Juul and his ex-wife Nora. Obviously, the concern with a series is whether one can enjoy it as a newbie. I came to Cursed having not read any of Enger’s previous work, and while there is backstory that I feel I would have benefitted from, enough is explained in this novel when need-be for it not to have spoilt my enjoyment.

Henning and Nora are both journalists. In Cursed, they both end up working on the same story: the disappearance of Hedda Hellberg, a woman from one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. Hedda booked a few weeks at an Italian retreat but never arrived. What’s more, the retreat has no record of her ever booking. The last that was seen of Hedda was when her husband dropped her off at the airport. The husband asks Nora for help as she and Hedda were college roommates. This Nora does, but the case soon becomes murky as it appears that Hedda is somehow connected to the death of an old man gunned down in the forest.

Henning, meanwhile, is pursuing those he believes are responsible for the death of his son (he and Nora broke up after an arson attack on their home which killed him) which leads him to immerse himself in Sweden’s organised crime syndicates. His case leads him to Nora’s which prove to be intertwined.

One of the strong points in this novel is Henning and Nora’s relationship, both wracked with grief by the death of their son, an event which understandably rent their relationship in two. They still care for each other deeply, perhaps still love each other, but tragedy has left a chasm between them.

The plot is handled adroitly, though the backstory of the threats to Hennings life, the different organised crime figures he’s investigated in previous books, people who were sent to prison, died, might have had reason to target him resulting in the fatal arson attack on his home, did get a little confusing at times.

That said, Cursed is a gripping novel with strong characters and if anything, this complex backstory, rather than put me off, has had me buying Enger’s previous volumes.

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

This is the second of this author’s novels that I’ve read (the first being his excellent book, The Deep) and once again I’m impressed. Nick Cutter has been compared to Stephen King, not least by the great man himself, and it’s not hard to see why; a definite King vibe runs through this novel, from the general scepticism of religious fanaticism, to the mounting air of menace that builds and builds to nerve-shredding heights. But equally, some of King’s faults can be found here, not least the text’s length and the corresponding suspicion that it would have been a better book had some prose been cut.

The plot revolves around a bunch of gunslingers – the book description calls them mercenaries, but really, they’re more like gangsters – are employed by a woman to accompany her to a remote religious community. She’s concerned that her nephew has been taken there against his will by his deadbeat dad and she wants their help should she need to bust him out. Seeing this as an easy gig, the mercenaries/gangsters agree and go along for the ride. This being a horror novel of course, things don’t turn out so easy.

Nick Cutter is a great writer, a brilliant wordsmith, and undoubtedly this novel is a great read. The author really imbues the religious community with a sense of the sinister and one just knows that this isn’t going to be some paradise. He also imbues a real sense of terror to the characters’ first encounter with the supernatural element of the story. That scene I suggest you read during daylight hours, or at least with the light on.

This leads me to my first criticism of Little Heaven. Now to be fair, this might be because horror isn’t my preferred gene. My first choice of read is crime/thriller, horror coming a distant second. So, this might be a tad unfair of me. But I kept finding the supernatural/horror elements getting in the way. The author does such a good job of portraying the religious cult, it’s charismatic and crazy leader, that I kind of wanted him to write a book about a Jim Jones/Jonestown death cult, a study in a madman leading his followers to disaster. But of course, that’s not the focus of the novel – though it does form a strand of the story – and the horror is what the author is all about.

To be fair to Nick Cutter, the supernatural elements are all handled effectively. As I indicate above, many scenes are really scary, the sort of thing that may well give you nightmares. If horror is your thing, if you’re a fan of Stephen King, then this is a book you should read. Until the end that is. And that leads to my second criticism. The ending.

Now I must stop you here because I can’t discuss this without delivering a major spoiler. No, seriously, MAJOR SPOILER COMING! Seriously people! Stop. Reading. Now. SPOILER ALERT!

Ok. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. The main threat to the characters in this novel are ancient demons. The main demon, the big baddie, lives in people it kind of captures. Like a parasite, it feeds on their souls until there is nothing left. So far, so horror affair. But these demons can be killed, right? With just weapons. And throughout the book, the mercenary/gunmen kill demons. That’s Ok, too. Now at the very end, one of the gunmen’s daughter is captured by the main demon. He travels into its lair with his buddies and he has a bomb secreted with him. He makes a deal with the demon: let my daughter go and you can have me. The demon says ok and lets the daughter go. The gunman tells his buddies to take his little girl away. As she escapes, he blows up the tunnel, trapping himself and the demon. So, the demon can have him but can’t escape and prey on anyone else.  But why? Why not run off with his daughter and blow up the tunnel, trapping the demon alone? There is literally no sense in this ending. The demon is unable to move fast, it’s like a little slug thing. He could have killed it, trapped it, anything. The only sense in this ending is to hold it open for a potential sequel (and indeed, the other mercenaries/gunmen discuss going back for him at the end). Other than that, it makes no sense whatsoever. And that annoys me.

All in all, this is a good book. A little too long, would rather there was more on the cult (but to be fair, that reflects my own reading tastes). My biggest complaint is the ending, which to me at least, made little sense. But if you like Stephen King, you could do a lot worse than read this.

4 out of 5 stars.