Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Blog Tour! - Reconciliation for The Dead by Paul E Hardistry - Blog Tour!

This is the third book in Hardistry’s series of novels following the trials and tribulations of his character, Claymore Straker. It’s in effect a prequel to the previous two books, giving insight into Straker’s back story and how he came to be the man he is today. Despite that, it can be read as a standalone if one hasn’t read the previous two, though I would recommend reading them in order, if only because they are all exceptionally good books.

Reconciliation for The Dead sees Straker return to his native South Africa to give evidence to the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as indeed he promised he would at the end of Book 2, The Evolution of Fear. Most of Reconciliation of The Dead is set in the past, when Starker was a paratrooper in the Apartheid-era South African army, fighting in Angola in support of UNITA and against SWAPO. Interspersed between chapters are excerpts of Straker’s evidence in the present day to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s an effective format and the excerpts of evidence put the main narrative in context and help drive the story on.

At the beginning of the story Straker is very much the loyal soldier. He’s not a dyed-in-the-wool, racist, Apartheid ideologue, rather he’s as many white South African’s must have been: loyal to his homeland, accepting of the propaganda sold by the state that South Africa was besieged on all fronts by communism, unthinkingly accepting of the status quo that divided the white population from the black majority. As events proceed however, and he is exposed to the reality of the war in Angola, he begins to question all he has been led to believe. This process of disenchantment proceeds with pace when he and his friend and comrade-in-arms, Eban, stumble upon a dark conspiracy. I won’t give away spoilers, but it is enough to say that they become witness to some of the darkest deeds the Apartheid regime was party to.

I had the honour of meeting the author at the book launch for Reconciliation for The Dead and he mentioned that for research for the novel he had spent months reading the transcripts of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a former current affairs journalist, I was aware of some of the story he based this novel on, but I was stunned by the lengths the Apartheid regime went to, something which this novel effectively demonstrates.

The thing I love about Paul Hardistry’s work is that each book is both a page-turning and cracking read and deeply educational. His first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, had much to say about resource depletion in the Yemen; his second, The Evolution of Fear, spoke of the destruction of natural habitats and the dark side of the tourist industry, while this latest outing, Reconciliation for The Dead, is a powerful tale that shines a light on the ugliness that was Apartheid and racial politics. As with the previous two books, Hardistry’s thorough research, coupled with a sense of outrage at the wrongs of the world, shines through the narrative and he’s written an extremely accomplished novel. But also like the previous novels, Reconciliation for The Dead is not a preachy rant. In fact, that’s why it’s so effective. Rather, it’s a thrilling, edge of the seat ride, the reader in the company of Claymore Straker, truly a thinking man’s Jason Bourne and in my view one of the best characters to populate thriller fiction. The two aspects – thriller and social/moral heart – complement each other effectively and elevate Hardistry’s work above many of his rivals. As with the previous two books, Reconciliation for The Dead truly is an exceptional read and I can’t recommend it enough. A definite favourite book of mine for 2017.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 15 May 2017

Blackwater by GJ Moffat

Blackwater is the story of Deputy Sheriff Early Simms, a decent man policing a tranquil small American town. It’s the kind of place where nothing much happens, a decent burgh populated by conservative minded, hardworking, decent folk. Early has demons, but at heart he’s a kindly giant, a product of this environment. 

But unbeknown to the population of Blackwater and its deputy sheriff twin dark clouds are on the horizon. Kate Foley, Early’s childhood sweetheart returns to town, bruised from a beating dished out by her husband. He’s spiralling dangerously out of control and wants either his wife back at any cost, or no other man to have her. Meanwhile, the Cain Brothers, Jimmy and Marshall, are on the warpath. Both more than capable of serious they’re on what can only be described as a criminal road trip, the viciousness of which is speedily escalating. Both clouds are hurtling towards Blackwater and the town’s deputy sheriff, Early Simms. 

When reading this accomplished novel, I was first tempted to characterise it as a slice of small-town noir, but writing this review I don’t think that’s accurate. Rather, I would consider Blackwater to be a modern Western, noir Western if you like. You have the good townsfolk of a small town, you have your outlaws riding in to rob and pillage, and finally, you have your decent lawman in the shape of Early Simms. Blackwater is an exciting read and the author does a good job setting the scene and ratcheting up the tension. I particularly liked the Cain brothers, who made believable and sinister villains. 

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, 12 May 2017

Western Fringes by Amer Anwar

I first heard of Amer Anwar back in 2008 when he won the Crime Writer Association’s Debut Dagger Award. Back then the CWA used to put the winning entries up on the website for all to read and Amer’s was, in my humble opinion at least, better than most. It was a modern-day gangster type tale but with a difference. None of those cliched, shaven-headed goons one would get in a Guy Ritchie movie, instead this was a slice of Southall noir.

I’m a “writer” myself - well I say writer, but I don’t have a literary agent or a publisher, hence the inverted commas – and like Amer I’ve submitted material to the Debut Dagger. Unlike him however, I’ve never won. So, as his entry impressed me so, as with other winners of the award, I kept my eye open for his book. For surely now he had won, his novel would hit the bookshelves in a blaze of glory? Well I waited and I waited. What had happened? Was he mad? Had he given up and decided he didn’t like this writing malarkey after all? Nope, turns out that winning was just one battle amongst many. Turns out that the time between winning the competition and hitting the bookshelves isn’t necessarily a smooth, short road. But finally, it’s here: Western Fringes. Is it any good? Did it live up to my expectations? Well actually it did and some.

Western Fringes tells the story of Zaq Khan, a Muslim man recently released from prison for manslaughter who just wishes to get his life back on track. He works in a builders’ merchants as a delivery driver. That is until his boss, Mr Brar, calls him into his office and tells him he has to track down his daughter, or else. The Brars are Sikh and Rita (the daughter) has run off with a Muslim. This is unforgivable to the Brars. Her brothers, Parminder (Parm) and Rajinder (Raj) are local criminal hard cases and Zaq is soon feeling the pressure from the entire Brar clan.

Western Fringes is populated with a plethora of interesting supporting characters. There’s Jags, Zaq’s best friend; Rita, the Brar’s daughter and her friend Nina, the various thugs the Brar brothers are allied to. The plot quickly escalates and Zaq soon finds that locating Rita is the least of his troubles. Without giving spoilers this book touches on the drug trade, kidnapping, armed robbery, the tensions within the Asian community amongst the different ethnic groups, I could go on. All this is handled with admirable and impressive aplomb, so much so, I have to say that Western Fringes is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Returning to the first paragraph of this review, I’ve since learnt that like many writers (like myself I hope to be able to say one day) Amer has been on quite the journey to publication. On his blog, Amer tells us that Western Fringes went through seven drafts with his editor. I certainly know how that feels. The result is a brilliant book and one that he can be proud of. Now finally published, Amer can call himself a writer (without the inverted commas) and is an inspiration for those like myself who wish one day to follow in his footsteps.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


I confess to having started reading Block 46 with more than a little consternation. It quickly becomes apparent when reading this book that it’s both a serial killer novel (not my favourite strand of crime fiction) and that the killer in some way grew out of the holocaust. This second aspect gave me real pause for concern. Was Block 46 going to prove to be some cheap exploitation? A novel that used the real-life horror of the concentration camps as a stepping stone for schlock? There were two things which gave me the reassurance to persevere, however. The first is that the publisher is Orenda Books, possibly the most successful of the independent publishers to start up in the past few years, and who’s boss Karen Sullivan I couldn’t imagine publishing anything exploitative. The second, was that turning to the acknowledgements, I read that the author Johana Gustawsson, has a family history which is deeply entwined in the horrific events of the holocaust. So, persevere I did. I’m happy to report that my concerns were allayed. I won’t give away any spoilers, but should potential readers have similar concerns to my own, they can relax.

First and foremost, this is a serial killer thriller with bodies turning up in London, on Hampstead Heath, and in Sweden. Emily Roy, a Canadian psychological profiler who was trained by the FBI at Quantico, and Alexia Castells, a French true-crime author, are soon assisting the police investigation. The killings are grotesque and the author holds little back in her description. Interspersed within all this are chapters set further back in time, in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Second World War. Here we follow Erich, a German political inmate. We know the stories are going to intersect we just don’t know how or when.

The concentration camp chapters are shocking in the extreme, as indeed they should be. The author doesn’t shy away from the horrors the inmates had to endure and the reader realises that even now, even after all we’ve read and heard about the topic, there’s more to learn. I found myself Googling aspects and discovering that they really happened, that this wasn’t just the product of the author’s imagination. In fact, so shocking are these chapters, that when reading the modern-day stuff, I sometimes found myself flicking pages to find out how much further until I encountered the historical narrative once again, so as to be able to steel myself. Not that the modern-day narrative goes easy on you. Reading this book, you quickly realise that the killer is uniquely evil, his twisted vision giving the narrative a breath-taking tension. 

Obviously, I understand that Block 46 is fiction and in a work of fiction a certain flexibility is taken with realism. That said however, I did have some issues with the novel. These stemmed from the following: serial killer fiction isn’t really my thing; I studied Criminology to MA level at the LSE; I have several friends in the police. What this amount to is that I found the character of Emily Roy not very convincing. Psychological profiling is not the magic bullet fiction writers like to portray it to be; police dependence on it as a tool went out of fashion a long time ago (if they ever did rely on it to that extent, one suspects this was more the wishful thinking of authors and screenwriters). My understanding is that even in America where profiling was more central to investigations it is now purely advisory in capacity. Certainly, in the UK I know this to be the case. In fact, there have been several occasions where profiling has gone disastrously wrong, not least when Colin Stagg was nearly railroaded into prison for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Full marks to the author for using the current in-fashion name for profilers (Behavioural Investigative Advisers), but Roy would never be given such free reign by the Met as the author imagines here. I’m sorry to say that while Roy was an interesting character in herself, I found the portrayal of her profession more than a little outdated. 

That all said, Block 46 is a very good book. Each of the characters (yes, even Emily Roy) are compelling in themselves. You want to spend time with them, you want to find out what happens, you want them to catch the killer and bring them to justice. It’s a testament to how good this book is that despite all the issues I had, I finished it quickly, within a matter of days. It’s a testament to how good this book is that I’ll read the sequel, even if its pages are populated by more serial killers.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Spoils by Brian Van Reet

This is a great novel written by a former US Army tank crewman. There are three main characters, Sleed a tank crewman (like the author himself), a female soldier Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, and a jihadi named Abu al-Hool. Cassandra is escaping a life of poverty, stoically endures the macho sexism that characterises army life - the patronising chivalry of her immediate superior, the brutish misogyny of a fellow crewmate. She’s better than many of her colleagues but must work twice as hard to prove it. Sleed is a typical grunt trying to get by. Surrounded by thuggish colleagues he tries to fit in, but there’s a decency about him that his immediate comrades lack. Abu al-Hool is a veteran jihadi whose exploits date back to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. He’s increasingly disillusioned by his life and has recently been usurped as leader of his band of fighters.

Dr Walid, the new leader of al-Hool’s jihadi band, has brought them to Iraq. For weeks, they sit around doing nothing but shooting propaganda videos, Walid clearly seeing himself as a proto-Zaqawi. But then they get wind of an American position and attack. In the ensuing firefight, Cassandra Wigheard and two other Americans are captured. The Quick Reaction Force that would, potentially, have rescued them is delayed, thanks to Sleed and his colleagues being away from their posts: they were searching one of Saddam’s palaces for booty.

The rest of the novel is focused on Wigheard’s captivity and, to a lesser extent, the American forces’ hunt for her. Wigheard really is a great creation, a character the author brings to life with a deftness of touch. The jihadis are also brilliantly portrayed. While some are the brutal psychopaths we might expect from the news media, most are portrayed as ordinary human beings, whose motivations for taking up arms against what they perceive to be foreign invaders in Muslim lands are numerous and complex. One striking aspect of the novel is how the author portrays their reaction to having captured a female soldier. As products of conservative Islam, they are equal parts fascinated and repelled by this blonde-haired example of the opposite sex. When she has her period their behaviour would border on the comical if it weren’t for the circumstances.

If I have one minor criticism of Spoils it’s that I’m not sure that the character of Sleed adds much to the narrative. It’s not that he’s a poorly constructed character, he isn’t, his characterisation is equally strong. But one could imagine the novel with his sections edited out and the book wouldn’t necessarily be any the weaker for it. Perhaps the author should have told the story just from Wigheard and the jihadists point of view and saved Sleed for another book.

Certainly, I hope this isn’t the last we hear from Brian Van Reet, he’s an author I would like to read more from. If Spoils is anything to go by, he’s a special talent.

5 out of 5 stars

Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad

This is best characterised as a political/techno thriller, though it could also arguably be filed away as a warning for our times. The plot revolves around a fictional social media platform, Parley (think Twitter as the descriptions of Parley are very similar to Twitter) which at its heart has a number of bot accounts. Users interact with each other and these bots, they compete for the attention of the bots. One such bot account is sic-girl, the creation of one of Parley’s key programmers, Dani Farr. Meanwhile, government minister Bethany Lehrer is unveiling a flagship programme, the Digital Citizen initiative. In return for allowing a private corporation access to all their private data - medical records, etc - people will be able to access services much faster and more efficiently.

The trouble starts when those people taking part in the Digital Citizen trial have their computers locked down, little piggy emoji’s plaguing their screens. Then sic-girl starts leaking damaging information about Bethany Lehrer and hinting that the entire Digital Citizen database has been hacked - all that private material in the hands of hackers. The police get involved, naturally assuming that Dani Farr is sic-girl, that she’s behind the leaks and the hacks. But she insists that she’s not, that sic-girl is just a stupid bot.

What’s going on? Is Dani a hacker? Has sic-girl graduated from bot to fully conscious artificial intelligence? Or has someone else subverted the bot? Is Digital Citizen an Orwellian nightmare as some suggest, or just a means of making all our lives easier in the interconnected, 21st Century? Things are complicated by a cast of supporting characters. The chilling head of the tech company set to run Digital Citizen; the charming PR guy Dani has always had a thing for; her fellow coders in Parley, all not quite as talented as her but anyone off which could have pulled off the hack.

Sockpuppet keeps us guessing until the end and certainly makes one think about the consequences the technological revolution holds in stall for us. With the internet of things just around the corner and the age of big data still in it’s infancy, the author touches on something that is all too current. But if anything, I found Sockpuppet a little too tame. A few years ago, I read a frightening non-fiction book, Future Crimes by Marc Goodman. A former adviser to the FBI, Goodman looked at the trends in cybercrime and cyberwar and predicted how the bad actors would make their living in the brave new world we are living in. It made for terrifying reading and the world of Sockpuppet is benign in comparison. Perhaps because of this, I found Matthew Blakstad’s novel dragged a bit. I felt he could have shaved a hundred pages or so and still told the same story.

All considered, Sockpuppet is a great debut and certainly I will read more from this author. In fact, I purchased his eBook prequel novella as soon as I had finished Sockpuppet. From what I understand he is hard at work on a sequel. If I had one suggestion to make for the continuation of the series, it’s for him to take more risk: delve into the darker aspects of cybercrime and cyberwarfare and pull out the real horrors that lie within.

3 out of 5 stars