20th Anniversary #BlogTour- J.J. Connolly- Layer Cake @vivajjconnolly “Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime, and a lucid and compelling tale of the criminal underworld.” @Duckbooks

Layer Cake, a metaphor for the many murky layers of the criminal world, is set in modern day London and features smooth-talking drug dealer X who has a plan to quietly bankroll enough cash to retire before his thirtieth birthday. Operating under the polished veneer of a legitimate businessman, his mantra is to keep a low profile and run a tight operation until it’s time to get out .

When kingpin Jimmy Price asks him to find the wayward daughter of a wealthy socialite who’s been running around with a cokehead, he accepts the job with the promise that after this he can leave the criminal world behind with Jimmy’s blessing. Oh, and he needs to find a buyer for two million ecstasy pills acquired by a crew of lowly, loud-mouth gangsters, the Yahoos. Simple enough, until an assassin named Klaus arrives to scratch him off his list, revealing this job is much more than it seems at first…

In much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting defined a generation in Scottish fiction, I believe that Layer Cake did much the same for London based crime fiction. The influence of this book on some of the best known London noir crime writers is inescapable, and J. J. Connolly really set the bar high for those following in his wake. It’s been a real pleasure dusting off my old copy of this and entering this violent and visceral world once again…

The characterisation of this disparate band of gangsters and wannabe gangsters is superlative from beginning to end, and they are, without exception so vividly drawn that the reader can picture each of them in all their sullied glory. Connolly plays close attention to how these men hold themselves, their physicality and manner of dress, and in this world where the appearance of confidence and strength is the key to success, it becomes easy to identify the weak and powerless who will definitely not make it to the end of the book. Despite having the moral code of a band of backstreet alley cats, I love that these men have a taste for the finer things in life be it smart threads, flashy motors and the finest food and drink. Much of their business is conducted in the rarefied air of high end restaurants and exclusive clubs, but equally in dodgy cafes and unsavoury boozers.

Our unnamed narrator, has all the street-smarts and at a relatively tender age is assured in his mission to retire at 30, unscathed and unpunished for his more nefarious drug dealings behind his appearance of respectability. Throughout the book, he not only cleverly negotiates the world of the gangster kingpins, but is more often than not, manipulated at the whim of others and things begin to get very dodgy indeed for him. I like the way that Connolly uses him as a mirror to the unsavoury cohorts encircle him, and through his perception of them, and their outbursts of violence, we get an even more vivid picture of these sometimes desperate and always dangerous men. In this world where money is all and double dealing the way to get on, there is little in the way of honesty, but there are flashes of loyalty and friendship that transcend this tough, dog-eat-dog and immoral world. The sudden and visceral outbursts of violence are as natural to these men as breathing, and as they alternately turn on each other, or band together to defeat outside forces, The psychological aspects of their personalities really fleshes them out for the reader, and poses puzzles all of its own as their behaviours change and by extension our perception of them.

The raw earthiness of Connolly’s prose is relentless, so for those of a sensitive disposition and an aversion to profanity, you would probably best avoid this. Even for a hardened reader the sheer weight of colloquialisms, street slang and swearing, added to the pace and rat-a-tat dialogue and narrative can be a little overwhelming at times, but the breath-taking scope of Connolly’s vocabulary and prose is a marvel. The prose is harshly rhythmical with a beat and musicality all of its own and although I have read the book a few times over the years, and I never tire of the snappy prose and the raw rhythm of the language  that the book marches along to.

Admittedly, some of the book seems a little dated now in terms of how time has moved on and how technology plays a much bigger part in the world of cross border drug dealing, but of its time, Connolly’s Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime and a lucid and compelling tale of the drug underworld. There is a raw sophistication instead of a sleek one, as the book does untangle a little in terms of tight narrative, and goes off in tangents at some points, but it’s all part of its charm. This is probably why I’ve always loved it, and will always return to it when the opportunity arises, Highly recommended.

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Check out the exclusive signed editions available from NO ALIBIS BOOKS

(With thanks to Duckworth for the PDF ARC, although I read my twenty year old beaten up, well loved copy!)

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Steve Cavanagh- Fifty Fifty- “A real page turner of the highest calibre.” @Sscav @OrionBooks

Two sisters on trial for murder. They accuse each other. Who do YOU believe?

‘911 what’s your emergency?’

‘My dad’s dead. My sister Sofia killed him. She’s still in the house. Please send help.’

‘My dad’s dead. My sister Alexandra killed him. She’s still in the house. Please send help.’

One of them is a liar and a killer. But which one?

 

Billed as the explosive follow up to Thirteen, the last book from Steve Cavanagh featuring grifter turned lawyer Eddie Flynn, I can guarantee that Fifty Fifty will keep you as gripped as any of the previous outings. Flynn is once again caught up in a tricky legal case where every decision on guilt or innocence could have dire consequences for the woman he seeks to defend, his advisory team, and for Flynn himself…

Obviously it would be extremely unwise of me to dwell too much on the plot itself, as I could cram this review with so many individual spoilers, it would make your head spin. Such is the convoluted trickery of Cavanagh’s writing, albeit with a seemingly innocuous premise of two sisters blaming each other for the murder of their father, that the essential enjoyment of any of his books relies on his expertise of the smoke and mirror effect. With our comprehension of each sisters guilt or innocence so completely manipulated throughout, and skewing our perception of them at every turn, Cavanagh once again demonstrates why he is one the sneakiest and tricksy crime writers on the scene today, keeping his reader in a state of suspense and questioning, that he so brilliantly mirrors in the main character of Flynn himself, that this is, by definition, a real page turner of the highest calibre. Admittedly, I did give myself a wee bit of a pat on the back this time by sussing out who did what to who with what and why, and I liked that little creeping sense of satisfaction that it gave me as a reader…

Eddie Flynn, and by extension his team of renegades (ex-judge Harry Ford is a particular favourite of mine), totally hold this series together, and Flynn’s sharp wit and heavily disguised legal acumen lie at the heart of the the enjoyment of these books. He is an entirely likeable protagonist who easily gets the reader on board with his delightful mix of street smarts and, at times, emotional sensitivity. The latter is particularly relevant in this case as something entirely unexpected happens that rocks both Flynn and us to the core, and gives us an insight into another aspect of his character, usually buried beneath the whip-smart attitude and his natural propensity to play with fire, and really getting under peoples’ skins. His normal slightly carefree demeanour is undermined and knocked soundly in this one, and I liked the direction this took his character in, despite the sense of loss regular readers of this series will experience as events play out. In fact, developing and moving characters on is a noticeable feature of this book, introducing another strong female character, Kate Brooks, a lawyer who seeks to challenge the chauvinistic and belittling attitude of the multi million dollar legal firm she is employed by, and which consequently takes her character on a very interesting journey…

With its cleverly executed plot, excellent characterisation, and thrills and spills, Steve Cavanagh, once again demonstrates his ability to raise the legal thriller to another level, with no diminishing of the nuts and bolts of criminal procedure, but keeping the relentless pace and energy at the forefront for the readers’ enjoyment. Fifty Fifty is a perfectly formed thriller, Eddie Flynn rocks and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC- Fifty Fifty is published 3rd September)

Read my reviews of all the Eddie Flynn series:

The Defence: Win the trial. Or lose his life. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) The Plea: His client is innocent. His wife is guilty. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) The Liar: It takes one to catch one. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) Thirteen

#BlogTour Will Carver- Hinton Hollow Death Trip “I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.” @will_carver @OrendaBooks

It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened. Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120. Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.
Narrated by Evil itself, it recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.
Making them steal.
Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan…

If I thought that reviewing Will Carver’s previous book Nothing Important Happened Today was damn tricky, it was a walk in the park compared to Hinton Hollow Death Trip which poses infinitely more stumbling blocks to coherent reviewing. As tempted as I am to just say this one freak-ass weird book, which you definitely need to read, that doesn’t really give you much to go on, does it? So dear reader, I feel duty bound to do this properly… cue sharp inhalation of breath and cracking of knuckles…

Centred on a  rural community of 5000+ souls, “a quaint little nowhere,” this is so much more than an everyday tale of small town folk, as Evil walks among them coercing and cajoling these most ordinary of people to behave in ways completely alien to them, and to lay themselves bare to the depraved machinations of this malevolent force. As Evil says, “Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything…It is a slow and deadly poison,” and as he bestrides this small town, gradually infecting and influencing its residents, you are pretty sure from the outset that this will not end well. As Evil recounts a host of horrifying events and disasters, that it has been party to, it blames the small minded, selfish beings that we have become, and through Carver’s examination of our fatuous obsession with social media, our pettiness, narcissism, our destruction of the planet, and cruelties to each other and animals too, you kind of get to thinking that Evil has a point as it observes, “You keep pushing and pushing. Wanting more and more. Listening less and less…Humankind has created evil at a rate that even I cannot keep up with.” 

As with his previous book, I delight in Carver’s diatribes on the sheer bloody uselessness of the majority of human beings, and found myself nodding sagely at some of the more barbed and amusing observations of the human race. very little in modern culture escapes Carver’s microscopic analysis, and this book is full of them. The calorific breakdown of biscuits is, of course, an essential need to know. However, balanced with the more throwaway and blackly funny observations, this book is cut through with the seriousness of our stupidity, and using the trope of Evil to filter this, brings a mixture of thought provoking and poignant meditations on our failings, hopes and how far we would sacrifice ourselves for others. As much as there are individuals in this book pushed into acts of cruelty, Carver never loses sight of their ordinariness, not all of these people are inherently bad, indeed some of them sacrifice themselves quite nobly, but I found it interesting that in some cases, the smallest nudge from Evil really does lead to some quite depraved deeds from where you would least expect it.

Consequently reading this book Carver is playing with and manipulating our emotions from start to finish, and I found this quite fun- I do like a bit of reader participation. An initial perception of a character can be changed in an instant, people you wouldn’t feel sorry for are suddenly made sympathetic, people in similar situations act in different ways, leading you to think what you would do and so on. Obviously some characters are just odious eejits, and your hackles are raised, your indignation aroused, and then someone dies. And then more people die. And then a couple more just for luck. It’s great.  Held together by the first person narration of Evil, as it moves everybody around in a sadistic game of chess, we once again encounter the hangdog and hapless DS Pace still reeling from the events of the previous book. I have a great affection for Pace, so woebegone, so incapable of relating to anyone, but an almost worthy adversary for Evil itself, but can this really end well for him?

As you’ve probably realised, I’ve told you next to nothing about the plot of Hinton Hollow Death Trip, so my own evil plan has worked well. Instead, I would encourage you to read this yourselves, much as I did with not the faintest clue of what would lie ahead. All manner of human life is contained within it, with people behaving badly, bravely, stupidly or nobly. You will gasp, you will laugh, you will quizzically wrinkle your brow, you will ponder the dark inner workings of Carver’s brain, but I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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FINAL Hinton Hollow BT Poster

Chris Carter- Written In Blood “A highly effective crime fighting duo- like Batman and Robin sans pantyhose.” @simonschusteruk #BlogTour

The Killer
His most valuable possession has been stolen.
Now he must retrieve it, at any cost.

The Girl
Angela Wood wanted to teach the man a lesson. It was a bag, just like all the others.
But when she opens it, the worst nightmare of her life begins.

The Detective
A journal ends up at Robert Hunter’s desk. It soon becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose. And if he can’t stop him in time, more people will die.

I have now completely lost track of how many of Chris Carter’s books I have read and reviewed, and always look forward to my new dose of darkness, murder and sheer damned twistedness, that his killers possess in spades. So, bring on Written In Blood and let’s see what depths of depravity we will witness now…

I love the familiarity of this series, and the fact that no matter how long it is between books, I am immediately transported back into the world of the LA Ultra Violent Crimes Unit, (love the insertion of the word ultra here) and the welcoming embrace of detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia. The absolute lynchpin of the books for me is the strength of the professional relationship between these two very different men, united by a fierce determinedness to track the most heinous of killers, whilst endeavouring to keep a grip on their own moral compass in the face of extreme evil. The differing facets of their characters and aspects of their personal lives are polar opposites in every way, but somehow this just makes them into a highly effective and tight crime fighting duo- like Batman and Robin sans pantyhose.

Carter always succeeds in balancing the natural intuitive intelligence and inner torments of Hunter, with the easy, impulsive charm and slight naivety of his partner Garcia. That’s not to say that Garcia does not have his own moments of lightbulb realisation, but he proves to be an incredibly useful sounding board for Hunter. Garcia is always used effectively as a conduit between the reader and the finer aspects of their cases, asking the questions we would ask, and drawing us further into the mechanics of the investigation. As usual, the dialogue and interactions between the two are fluid, snappy and natural with the measured responses of Hunter balanced with the more fiery and reactionary passion of Garcia, that  always adds a lively dynamic to the books. I also very much enjoyed the introduction of the streetwise pickpocket Angela into the mix, not only for the way she interrupts the more mechanical aspects of the case itself, but her mix of ballsiness and fragility was beautifully balanced.

Another aspect of this series that I am always impressed by is that at times Carter plays a game of smoke and mirrors with his readers, in the way he manipulates our responses to not only the victims, but oftentimes the killer themselves. This is particularly redolent in this book, and I found myself forming an uneasy empathy with the killer, with certain aspects of their motivation and drive bringing a sympathetic edge to my reading of this character. As much as Hunter and Garcia are honour bound to do the very best for their victims, and the author keeps the victims at the forefront, I do enjoy the way Carter messes slightly with our perceptions along the way. Carter has carved a real niche in the serial killer thriller genre, not just relying on overt shocks and violence to hook the reader, but also providing a fascinating insight into the compulsions and motivations of the perpetrators. He also perfectly measures the shocks and reveals, particularly in the closing lines of a chapter, driving the reader on to one more chapter, one more chapter, champing at the bit to know what happens next, until you find yourselves swiftly nearing the end of the book. Written In Blood is no exception, and definitely a recommended read.

(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Doug Johnstone- The Big Chill “Far from overpowering our perception of these characters with the darker aspects of their experiences, Johnstone cleverly insinuates touches of dark humour, and moments of pure joy into the narrative too.” @doug_johnstone @OrendaBooks

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life. While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.  But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?

When I reviewed A Dark Matter, the first of this trilogy, I knew from the outset that Doug Johnstone had produced something very special indeed. Focusing the book on this triumvirate of utterly compelling female characters, grandmother, mother and granddaughter, running their dual businesses of funeral home and private investigation, the scene was set for an usual and original series, and the second book, The Big Chill, does not disappoint…

The characterisation of the three generations of the Skelf family, Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah is damn near flawless, with Johnstone capturing perfectly the lives, joys, loves, losses and insecurities of the women with an astute touch. His depiction of each is unfailingly perceptive, bringing their individual character traits to the fore, whilst never losing sight of the disparate differences between them that comes with age and experience. Dorothy teetering on the edge of a new attachment, but still in thrall to the memory of her late husband, Jenny trying to put the duplicitous actions of her ex-husband behind them and embarking on a new relationship, and Hannah who carries all the indignance yet insecurity of youth in her relationship with her mother and partner.

All three are still working through the fallout of the previous book, and as much as you want to see them put this behind them, the past has a nasty way of informing their present, as events play out. As all three seemingly operate in a separate space, due to the differing investigations and trouble they find themselves in, but, there is always an unerring feeling of connection between them. As events threaten to overwhelm them individually, and bring further troubles to their door, this bond which waxes and wanes, but never disappears, is the glue that binds them, and bolsters their personal and emotional strength. Johnstone depicts all this with a sure-footedness and efficacy that imprints these characters fully in our minds, and as such draws them into our consciousness resonating with our empathy, and heightening our connection to them.

As much as I enjoyed the story and plotting, with the individual travails and peril the women experience, I always feel with Johnstone’s writing that something deeper dwells at the heart of his books. Somewhere, from the mists of time, I recall the following quote (reportedly from an Irish headstone) which captures for me the essence of these books to date, “death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal” and these themes, intrinsically bound up with the notions of grief and mourning, seems to me at least, the driving force behind this series. Aside from the central setting of the funeral home, which by its very definition is a harbinger of death and loss, every character is experiencing some kind of love, loss or pervading aspect of grief that arrives in the wake of the experiences they have. Grief for loved ones and lost relationships, or personal grief caused by betrayal, deception or the uncovering of unpalatable secrets, and equally how to come to terms with all these different aspects of loss and sadness is handled sensitively throughout. Grief is the surest measure of love there is.

However, far from overpowering our perception of these characters with the darker aspects of their experiences, Johnstone cleverly insinuates touches of dark humour, and moments of pure joy into the narrative too. Again, the author draws on his scientific background too, to introduce some more cosmic ruminations, which are both enlightening and thought-provoking, and seek to highlight our own small space in an ever changing universe. All of these strands in The Big Chill lead to a rounded and ultimately satisfying read, underscored by his affectionate and, at times, raw depiction of the book’s Edinburgh setting. Highly recommended. How could it not be?

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Helen Callaghan- Night Falls, Still Missing

On a cold, windswept night, Fiona arrives on a tiny, isolated island in Orkney. She accepted her old friend’s invitation with some trepidation – her relationship with Madison has never been plain sailing. But when she approaches Madison’s cottage, the windows are dark. The place has been stripped bare. No one knows where Madison has gone. As Fiona tries to find out where Madison has vanished to, she begins to unravel a web of lies. Madison didn’t live the life she claimed to and now Fiona’s own life is in danger . . .

The third book from new-to-me author Helen Callaghan, Night Falls, Still Missing, transports us to the wild and desolate backdrop of a winter in Orkney, and the strange disappearance of a woman working on an important archaeological dig. This was an altogether different and interesting read for me, though not for the reasons I imagined when I set out to review this one, as the ‘crime’ element of the book became increasingly less relevant as I read on…

Somewhat perversely, I will start by saying that what I really didn’t like about this book was so central to how much I enjoyed other aspects of the book. That is to say, straining a largely far-fetched and predictable plot through such a compressed set of characters who were so eminently dislikeable that I would have totally increased the body count with no hesitation at all. Veering from the painfully woolly Dr Fiona Grey, summoned to the island on the whim of her friend the intensely self-obsessed, man-mad and narcissistic Madison (who also has a de rigueur creepy stalker), and then to the largely banal and irritating group of Madison’s archaeological cohorts, this is truly a rich pick ‘n’ mix of people you would desperately not want to be stuck in a confined space with. Consequently, whether by design or coincidence by the author, my lack of interest in these characters and the weak plot, afforded me an opportunity to look elsewhere in the book for some points of interest, and this proved a much richer source of enjoyment indeed.

I know this is a strange thing to say, and maybe sounds a little harsh, but this book would have been really quite stunning if the half-baked crime plot had been omitted. What Callaghan has is a really quite impressive prose style when she is focussing on the backdrop to the story in terms of her depiction of the natural elements of the landscape, and the feel and atmosphere of the location itself. I feel that if Callaghan had focussed more on this, and developed the glimpses of the more interesting aspects of her characters, which became overwhelmed along the way, a much stronger book would have emerged. Perhaps controversially, and with no disrespect to Callaghan herself, the book could have evolved into a more than satisfying fiction read, replete with naturalistic detail, but with small incidences of human connection and disconnection, against the rugged and beautiful landscape she so perfectly describes. I also loved the referencing of archaeological detail, the overarching theme of the past impacting on the present, and the illuminating historic references pertinent to Norse legend and so on. It’s so frustrating that all these good elements had to take a back seat to the central narrative that was ultimately quite ridiculous and  unsatisfying. Unfortunately, a book of two halves for this reader, but displaying clear evidence of a suppressed, but good, writing style that maybe didn’t quite suit this genre on this occasion.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley UK/ Michael Joseph)

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The journey begins- #20BooksOfSummer20-The Cat And The City/The Company of Strangers/ Killing State/Whirligig/ Survive @nasubijutsu @awaiskhanauthor @AndrewJamesGre3 @judithoreilly @t0mbale

Well, I have properly surprised myself with my progress so far on the 20BooksOfSummer20 Reading Challenge particularly with other reading commitments, my wavering concentration, and some quite low days indeed. But enough of the negative, and to the books, the books I say. Obviously, being by nature quite single-minded (bloody-minded) I have played a bit fast and loose with my nominated books already, having had three that just really, really didn’t grab me. Yes, you will in time find out what didn’t really spark joy, so were consigned to the dreaded DNF pile. What does spark joy is that this particular reading challenge allows for deviations and diversions from your original list, and I love it for this very reason! Although I have opted to write slightly more truncated reviews than my usual waffle-fest, I hope these will capture for you the essence of the books, and why they are worth seeking out.  So, here are some thoughts on the first five books:

 

In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways. But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer…

I must admit that I’m not entirely sure that I can do justice to The Cat and the City in any meaningful way, as it is such a multi-layered and, to be quite honest, brilliant book. Framed as a series of poignant vignettes, experimenting with the ergodic form, the main narrative maps the city of Tokyo and some of its local denizens and quite simply, I found the whole experience of reading this utterly mesmerising. Bradley intricately and sensitively links the lives and stories of his individual characters with a very naturalistic ebb and flow, moving them delicately and skilfully like literary chess pieces, to the fore and the aft of each story, seeking a sense of belonging and connection in a city constantly on the move.

The writing, plotting, and descriptive detail and atmosphere of this book is so perfectly rendered, that I literally sat down to read from start to finish in a day. I was moved from joy to sadness to laughter at regular intervals, and as the isolation of city life wends its way through these individuals’ urban existence, the points where meaningful connections are made or lost, were particularly emotive. The author completely captures the tautness and deceptive simplicity of Japanese fiction, where small events take on huge and metaphorical import, and simple lives give us a window into, and pause for thought on, our own existence and feelings. I’ve never understood it when someone says that they finish a book and then immediately re-read the same book again, but there was a definite twinge of this on finishing this one. Consequently, as someone who very rarely re-reads books, I can give this book no higher praise that I will re-read this, more than once I suspect, and will undoubtedly be as enchanted and moved by it as on my first reading. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of The Cat and The City)

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Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status… everything except for freedom. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging. Desperate for emotional release, she turns to a friend who introduces her to a world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her. Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear…

I will try to resist the urge to completely gush about Awais Khan’s In The Company Of Strangers, but this is something really quite special indeed. Written with such a stark clarity and perceptive tenderness, this story of love, conflict, religion, wealth and poverty set in Pakistan, was unutterably moving throughout.

As we become immersed in the lives of Mona and Ali, who ostensibly are polar opposites, but who make a vital and emotive connection, Khan draws us into their contrasting worlds so vibrantly and movingly throughout. Mona, who on the outside looking in, seems to have the perfect lifestyle, but there is a dark undercurrent to her relationship with her husband, and an intense dissatisfaction beneath the surface, bound up with issues of abuse, fidelity, age and status. I was mesmerised by the drawing and depiction of her character, as she really encapsulated all the doubts and insecurities that many women carry despite outward appearances. Her character is a maelstrom of emotion and self-questioning, but so sensitively depicted that the reader begins to feel a real connection and empathy with her. I will say less about Ali, the main male protagonist, as the gradual reveal of his inner demons is powerfully unfolded as the story progresses. Again, he is a character that is beautifully drawn, and represents on many levels the gaps and fissures in society of money, religion and social unrest. His tentative interactions and then growing relationship with Mona, whilst balancing the demands of family loyalty and coercion into acts of violence, is sublimely realised.

Khan also completely captures the mercurial nature of Pakistan itself, from the atmosphere of the city itself, to the disparity of its citizens, the unassailable gap between poverty and wealth, and the overarching threat of violence and unrest. There is a vibrancy and colour to Khan’s writing that not only exudes from his characters, but also the more mundane aspects of everyday life for these city dwellers, so that the high emotion of the central narrative is kept grounded by his other observations, and touches of the ordinary. As you can tell, I was incredibly impressed with this book, which also achieved a rare thing indeed, leaving me with a tear in my eye at its close. This has only happened once before, so I think that is probably a striking testament to the power and sensitivity of Khan’s writing. Highly recommend this one, and looking forward to this author’s next book.

(I bought this copy of In The Company Of Strangers)

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Michael North, assassin and spy-for-hire, is very good at killing bad guys. But what happens when his shadowy bosses at the dark heart of the British government order him to kill a good woman instead? Rising political star, Honor Jones, MP, has started asking dangerous questions about the men running her country. The trouble is, she doesn’t know when to stop. And, now that he’s met her, neither does North…

I’ve been reading such good reviews of Killing State across the board, and its follow up Curse The Day, that it would have been positively rude to ignore this one. I’m a real fan of conspiracy thrillers generally, and as events unfold across the world of politics and big business, it is becoming increasingly impossible to deny that these shadowy cabals of corruption do exist, manipulating our lives from the corridors of power. I loved the pace and energy of this one, being both a fast moving and gripping thriller, but also solidly basing the story in a world of lies and conspiracy that holds you firmly in its thrall. I would also like to congratulate O’Reilly in presenting us with a character- a female Tory MP- who actually exhibits evidence of a spine which is no mean feat. Ha. Little bit of politics there…

Seriously though, I thoroughly enjoyed the interplay between the two main characters, the mysterious assassin Michael North ( sharp-thinking, brawny and attractive) and his potential target, the aforementioned MP, Honor Jones (intelligent, fearless and attractive) whose true natures O’Reilly stealthily reveals, within the increasingly perilous situation they find themselves in as events unfold. There is a completely assured control of tension within the book, with some real heart-in-the-mouth episodes of violence and danger, balanced with a steadily creeping sense of unease as the underlying conspiracy comes to the surface.  Combining both these aspects to the narrative, O’Reilly effectively keeps the reader on tenterhooks as to the real motivations of her characters, and providing an enjoyable game of cat and mouse for her characters and by extension, the reader. Really enjoyed Killing State and have bought the follow up. There can’t be a better recommendation than that.

(I bought this copy of Killing State)

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Just outside a sleepy Highland town, a gamekeeper is found hanging lifeless from a tree. The local police investigate an apparent suicide, only to find he’s been snared as efficiently as the rabbit suspended beside him. As the body count rises, the desperate hunt is on to find the murderer before any more people die. But the town doesn’t give up its secrets easily, and who makes the intricate clockwork mechanisms carved from bone and wood found at each crime? Whirligig is a tartan noir like no other; an expose of the corruption pervading a small Highland community and the damage this inflicts on society’s most vulnerable. What happens when those placed in positions of trust look the other way; when those charged with our protection are inadequate to the challenge; when the only justice is that served by those who have been sinned against?

I tell you what, this was an absolute winner on so many levels for me, and with absolutely no disrespect to Andrew James Grieg, I will immediately draw comparisons with Benjamin Myers excellent thrillers, Turning Blue and These Darkening Days. This is purely on the basis that I have been looking for a comparable crime read to these books, in terms of darkness and violence set against a natural, brooding environment for some time, and, hallelujah, I have totally found it in Whirligig. I don’t quite know why people say they devoured a book, but think I understand a bit better now. Sometimes I will admit, reading predominantly crime fiction can become a bit of a chore, but this book hooked me from the start with its taut prose, an impending feel of dread and unease from the outset, and a nicely inventive killing to kick things off. Then it just got even better. And darker. And more inventively murderous.

Incorporating a classic police combo of older male DI, James Corstorphine, and younger female DC, Frankie McKenzie I was singularly impressed by how quickly this partnership and by extension, their police colleagues, were so effectively embedded into the narrative. Grieg’s character building was exceptional from the very start, instantly making a connection with this reader, through flowing dialogue, peppered with dry wit and gentle joshing, but then unfolding the character’s lives with depth and detail, until there was a real layer of comfort with them, which some authors take more than one book to achieve. This rested not solely with Grieg’s police protagonists as victims and suspects take their place in the plot, achieving new levels of empathy with the reader, or in some cases outright hostility. The violence is bleak but never gratuitous, and being played out against the Highland backdrop, as dark and sinister as the evil machinations in the book, only added to overall feeling of unease.  Absolutely hoovered it up, leaving me with an almost tangible sense of loss when I finished it. Highly recommended, and can’t wait for the next.

(I bought this copy of Whirligig)

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On a remote island in the Adriatic, an enigmatic billionaire hosts a twisted form of entertainment to satisfy the jaded appetites of his exclusive guests. And for one unsuspecting family, the holiday of a lifetime is about to become a desperate battle for survival. As young parents, Sam and Jody have managed to defy the odds once before. But years of struggle have taken their toll, and Sam’s demons return to haunt him at the worst possible time. Caught up in a sick game of cat and mouse, can they put their differences aside and work under intolerable pressure to save themselves and their children? Live or die. It’s the only choice they have…

During lockdown, I am sure I am not alone in having periods of such lack of concentration that I felt almost like I would never pick up a book again. If you totally give yourself over to the suspension of disbelief, and turn off that nit picky, endlessly questioning worm in your head, this was a complete tonic. On paper, it looks a fairly unbelievable premise, young couple on holiday with kids get immersed in bizarre Tales Of The Unexpected meets Hunger Games-esque fight for survival, but I tell you what, could I put it down? No, I could not.

I loved the whole farfetchedness of the story, because Bale makes you feel a real connection and empathy with this hapless family. I was completely rooting for them throughout. Well apart from one of the kids, who was really annoying, but that’s a minor quibble. He puts this perfectly ordinary family under such pressure, extreme torment and a pervading sense of violence, that you have to wonder if Bale’s partner has to sleep with one eye open. What a dark and twisted mind…. I like it. The baddies are, oh so bad. So scheming. As one character falls foul of this cartel of carnage you know how ruthless these people are. Do all of the family escape? Do they survive? Will you emerge with your nerves completely un-shredded? Why not find out? Mwahahahaha….

(With thanks to the author for an ARC of Survive)

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#BlogTour Quentin Bates- Cold Malice “Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books.” @graskeggur

Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir tries not to believe in ghosts. But when Helgi, one of her team is certain he’s seen a man who had been declared dead more than fifteen years ago, she reluctantly gives him some unofficial leeway to look into it. Has the not-so-dead man returned from the grave to settle old scores, or has he just decided to take a last look around his old haunts? Either way, there are people who have nursed grudges for years, hoping for a reckoning one day. Even the rumour of his being alive and kicking is enough to spark a storm of fury and revenge, with Gunnhildur and Helgi caught up in the middle of it…

I am already a confirmed fan of this series, having previously reviewed Thin Ice and Cold Breath and it is a still a source of much puzzlement to me that Quentin Bates still remains relatively little known. Aside from his accomplished translations of Icelandic fiction, I generally find that when I recommend his books in my day job as a bookseller, he becomes a firm favourite, so hopefully I can continue the trend here!

Detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is, without a doubt, the lynchpin to this series, where she carefully balances her traits of fairness and determinedness, with a sharp wit and her reluctance to suffer fools gladly. There’s a great observation by one of her police colleagues, “Gunna had no problem in being downright offensive if she felt it was called for, and it was a brave man who picked an argument with her,” which on the surface shows the more antagonistic aspect of her character, but is roundly applauded and respected for her instincts and intuition too. When I read these books, I always picture Marge Gunderson from Fargo, as Gunna shares many a trait with her, and I also like the fact that her family life, at times complicated, is always incorporated into the books, giving us an even more rounded sense of her balancing the roles of detective of some repute and as a mother, with the challenges that this brings. You always feel that she clasps a bit between her teeth, and one of the cases is no exception with a suspicious suicide and a tangled web of past secrets, but also a case that leads her to navigate the unfamiliar and unscrupulous art world.  I also enjoyed the way that a closer focus was put on Helgi, one of Gunna’s police colleagues, as he is on the trail of a face from a past presumed dead, whilst coming to terms with another surprise addition to his brood, and trying to control his wandering eye…

What I love about this series, apart from Gunnhildur and her colleagues , is how Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books. Within this story, the author has ample opportunity to draw us into the workaday world of men at sea, and the dangerous and stressful conditions that this work involves. His descriptions of the stormy seas, the sheer hard physical toil of life, and the stress that life away from home wreaks on family are all beautifully described. You get a real sense of the waves crashing around your ears, and the biting cold permeating you to the core. Aside from this, Bates also casts a perceptive eye on the changes that Iceland has experienced, both politically and socially, in terms of the increase in tourism, the development of the capital city, and the fractures that are appearing more on a social level. Again, this serves to draw the reader in closer to the actual landscape and feel of Iceland, as closely as possible, adding another layer of interest to this police procedural.

There is a real comfort to be had in reading a series where the characters and terrain have become increasingly familiar to you, giving you a feeling very much akin to pulling on a comfy jumper, and being instantly enveloped back into this world and with these people. This series does that perfectly, and as I said in the intro, this is probably one that you might like to discover for yourselves, whether you start with Cold Malice or start from the very beginning. Which as we know, is a very good place to start. Recommended.

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Eve Smith- The Waiting Rooms “With all these elements of fact and fiction working in harmony, it really lifts and enhances the book above the dystopian darkness that dwells at its heart.”@evecsmith @OrendaBooks

Decades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable, and a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’ -hospitals where no one ever gets well. Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything. Because Kate is not the only secret that her mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too…

To be honest, I am finding The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith a little bit daunting to review. Not only is this an incredibly prescient book, addressing a host of important themes and issues, but also manages to balance this with being an incredibly compelling thriller. So I’ll take the bull by the horns and forge on…

The crisis facing us with the decreasing effectiveness and shortages of anti-biotics has been particularly of late, well documented. What Smith achieves here is a sober and timely reminder of how our dependence on and misuse of anti-biotics will eventually lead to a global health crisis, and how common ailments will become increasingly more deadly, without effective treatments available. The book is framed within this actually coming to pass, where the older members of society are prohibited from access to these drugs, and face a heart-breaking outcome because of this. What struck me most when reading this, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, and depressingly more to come, was how believable this scenario actually is.

By punctuating the book with scientific evidence- which in no way detracts from the ebb and flow of the main narrative itself- Smith presents to us a truly chilling picture of the future. I was fascinated by these little vignettes, which added a real frisson to the ostensibly fictional world the author presents, and which added a vital layer of interest to the plot. As one strand of the book deals with a botanist, and the increasing need to harness the power of previously unused plants and flora to address the global anti-biotic crisis, with at times destructive results, the book raises some interesting questions about the advancement in medicine and science to try and counteract the potentially devastating situation we may find ourselves in.

One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed, was Smith’s examination and presentation of her older characters. In Lily, who is gradually revealed to have had an absolutely fascinating past, Smith draws her character with a real sense of poignancy and sensitivity, with a salient reminder that older people have themselves lived a life of vitality, passion and usefulness, that often reduces some writers to cliche and stereotype. She was undoubtedly my favourite character, with glimmers of rebelliousness and lively intelligence, that added to the roundedness of her character overall. By interposing her back story in South Africa as a botanist , and the very real emotional trauma she experienced, both professionally and personally, as a result of her work there, this previous life remains at the forefront of the reader’s mind, as we see her in her latter years facing the unwelcome ramifications of her life and work there. I found her story incredibly touching and moving throughout, drawing a realistic picture of a woman torn between the heart and the head, and with a tragic back story that wends so powerfully into her existence in the present.

What Smith achieves so effectively is balancing the book, not only with the factual realities of a global health crisis, and the sharp and detailed characterisation of her protagonists, but a real sense of the visual in her story telling. I found the sections of the book set in South Africa particularly realistic, not only in her vivid descriptions of the landscape, atmosphere and flora and fauna, but also the more social detail with the scenes set within the healthcare system being particularly emotive and disturbing. Smith harnesses all of these aspects of this unique setting so vividly, that it adds a real vitality and interest to the bleak events that come to pass there, and that are unfolding across the world, adding another level to the reading experience. As I have said, with all these elements of fact and fiction working in harmony, it really lifts and enhances the book above the dystopian darkness that dwells at its heart. For this reason, I would highly recommend The Waiting Rooms as a powerful and fascinating thriller, albeit with a grim vision of the future which we dare not look away from.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Rod Reynolds- Blood Red City- @Rod_WR @OrendaBooks “Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.”

When crusading journalist Lydia Wright is sent a video of an apparent murder on a London train, she thinks she’s found the story to revive her career. But she can’t find a victim, much less the killers, and the only witness has disappeared. Wary she’s fallen for fake news, she begins to doubt her instincts – until a sinister call suggests that she’s not the only one interested in the crime. Michael Stringer deals in information – and doesn’t care which side of the law he finds himself on. But the murder on the train has left him exposed, and now he’ll stop at nothing to discover what Lydia knows. When their paths collide, Lydia finds the story leads through a nightmare world, where money, power and politics intersect, and information is the only thing more dangerous than a bullet…

Having enjoyed Rod Reynold’s previous series set in the United States, Blood Red City marks a change of direction for this author. Now firmly ensconced in the greedy and grimy streets of London, this book has shades of both State Of Play and McMafia, enlivened by Reynold’s unique and compelling writing style…

In writing a thriller with a storyline such as this, there is always a danger that a writer will drift too far down the Hollywood road, relying on coincidence and unbelievable twists to push the action on and provide that high octane pace that comes with the territory. What Reynolds gives us is a skilfully crafted and perfectly balanced thriller that feels incredibly rooted in reality without the bells and whistles that others rely on. From the opening scenes of an apparent murder on the London Underground, the drawing in of a tenacious and determined journalist, and the shadowy figure of a man for hire, what unfolds before us is a tale of duplicity, greed and corruption that sucks you in and spits you out at the end, drained, yet satisfied.

For my money, and having a read a few thrillers this year which circle the same kind of plot as this, I think this is the best of the recent bunch. The plotting is so finely controlled with just the right amount of change of gear in terms of pace, and reveal, that although it doesn’t stint on the page count, I found myself reading big, meaty sections of it in one sitting. Giving nothing away I’m sure most of us are extremely aware of the correlation behind the scenes of crime and politics, so what perturbed me the most was how believable this all felt, with the incredible influence of money and power at the root of the story, and at the very heart of the corruption that plays out before us. Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.

I loved the front and centre role that London occupies in this book where, whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with it, Reynolds neatly captures the most resonant features of the metropolis. The rush of stale air before a tube train arrives, the streets, the noise, the pace, the grinding poverty, the glittering, grasping riches, and the very essence of the city. By paying such attention to the location itself, and like his previous books, the author transfers us into his very visual and almost tactile rendition of the city, and as his characters live, work and are pursued through its streets in extreme danger, the city is the constant and completely perfect backdrop for the web of corruption and danger he places his characters within.

So into the pulsating heart of the living, breathing city and its shadowy, scheming powerbrokers, Reynolds gives us two main characters, diametrically opposed to each other, in almost every way possible, but with a growing sense that together they are stronger. Lydia Wright, dedicated journalist with a strong moral code, fiercely loyal to those she holds dear, but unafraid to go off in pursuit of a story with wrongs to be righted. Her character is underpinned by a  tendency to trust the wrong people, particularly one scurrilous individual whose card I had marked from early on, and a slightly too gung-ho attitude in the face of some considerable danger. I liked her very much, flaws and all, and I also admired the way that Reynolds didn’t manipulate her character to make her act unfeasibly out of character, keeping a sense of ordinariness about her, but not shying away from her sense of determination and loyalty, when the pressure is on. Which brings us to Michael Stringer, a man for hire, whose true intentions and character are more of a closed book for a fair amount of the book, perhaps because of his bad start in life, and by his current shady employment. Who is he and who is he working for, and as the more secretive aspects of Stringer’s character are gradually revealed, can Lydia really trust him?…

So, Blood Red City more than proves itself as a thriller with edgy tension, a powerful and well constructed plot, and a stark insight into a world of violence, greed and corruption within the echelons of power.

Intrigued? You will be.

Gripped? Definitely.

On the edge of your seat? Oh yes…

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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