Getting That Blogging Groove Back (1)…

It’s been a while, but now the time has come to get back into the blogging groove! Bearing in mind that due to the shadow of recent upheavals, I didn’t actually read a single book for four weeks, I have made up for it since. Now safe and secure in my new abode- no, I haven’t unpacked all my books yet- I have recouped some of my reading time with a longer commute, and with rooms that actually have proper lighting and heating…long story…Still battling the stress a bit, and recovering from seemingly endless colds, but hopefully fighting fit again soon. Thanks for the lovely messages, and the complete understanding of some publishers for my missing of blog tours, complete ineptitude etc…

In order to make up some ground in terms of reviewing, the next few posts are going to be a snapshot of books read over the course of the last couple of months, so then things will be back on track. Have certainly inflated my to-be-read pile through my fellow bloggers’ reviews of late, and it’s good to be back among you! 

61RX1hDwquL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_In the spirit of Non-Fiction November, I’ll start with The Mile End Murder by Sinclair Mackay, billed as the case that Conan Doyle couldn’t solve. Detailing the events surrounding the brutal murder of a particularly dislikeable wealthy widow, Mackay reveals the true murderer towards the close of the book, exposing the miscarriage of justice, and the fact of an innocent man having gone to the gallows. Admittedly, Mackay goes proper Ripper Street in terms of his evocation of place, and the grinding poverty of this particular borough of London in the 1860’s, and paints a lively portrait of the period. However, maybe jaded by such wide reading on this particular period it did feel a little cardboard cut-out, and didn’t really bring anything new to this burgeoning sub-genre of British history. It also felt a little repetitive in places, and consequently when Mackay unveiled the true killer I felt more a sense of relief than excited anticipation. Having been bored witless by The Suspicions of Mr Whicher too, maybe this was inevitable…

Far more engrossing was Piu Eatwell‘s exceptional Black Dahlia, Red Rose, revisiting the events of the infamous 1946 murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles. Having long been fascinated by this case, in no small part thanks to James Ellroy’s fictional construction of the same event, Eatwell has produced a perfect combination of reportage, research, and readability. The level of research undertaken by Eatwell is astounding, and her re-creation and analysis of not only the infamous case, but the precise capturing of the era and American society is utterly fascinating. Eatwell pivots the text between contrasting periods, to encompass cultural and historical detail, providing a panopticon vision of American life. Eatwell subtly captures the descent of Short into the mad, bad world of Hollywood with her dreams and aspirations shattered, like so many budding starlets of the era, and then unveils the true identity of the Black Dahlia killer.

I was convinced.

I was also totally gripped by this sublime slice of true crime, with its intriguing asides, titillating footnotes, and the transportation back to this fascinating era of American history. Highly recommended.

Next up American Radical by Tamer Elnoury, with Kevin Maurer, an account of Elnoury’s life as an undercover Muslim FBI agent. In the global war against terrorism and religious extremism, Elnoury provides a remarkable account of his career to date, referencing several operations where he has infiltrated terrorist cells and exposes, as far as possible as still an active agent, some of the techniques the FBI employs to achieve this. There is a beautiful balance in the book between Elnoury’s dispassionate and erudite portrayal of the workings of Islamic extremism, and the level of threat they present, set against his own beliefs as a devout Muslim, which cleverly juxtaposes both the beauty, and manipulation of, the central tenets of Islam. There is an energy and tension to the book throughout, which reads with the pace of a thriller, but underscored by the unsettling truth of the murderous world that Elnoury presents. I was fascinated and fearful in equal measure throughout, and disquieted by certain revelations regarding the world of Islamic extremism. A brave account, and an essential read in these uncertain times. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Aurum Books and Hachette respectively for The Mile End Murder, and Black Dahlia, Red Rose. I bought a copy of American Radical published by Penguin RandomHouse)

 

Bijou Crime- Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell/Bird In A Cage- Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

I will confess that I am quite the fan of the Pushkin Vertigo series that is bringing to my attention a whole host of European crime authors previously unknown to me. With the titles to date being generally compact and slim novellas, for this post I will give you a brief overview of my best discoveries to date…

dardBeing such a confirmed fan of Georges Simenon, I could not believe my utter ignorance of the work of Frederic Dard, whose output in terms of number and quality is widely lauded as the equal of Simenon himself. I thought The Wicked Go To Hell in particular was absolutely outstanding, opening with an unnamed and deniable police officer being instructed to go undercover into gaol to initiate a prison break with a recently confined criminal to infiltrate the organisation the prisoner is affiliated with. Not until the final bloody denouement is the reader in possession of the knowledge as to which character is which when the undercover operation begins, being named merely as Hal and Frank. From the claustrophobic intensity of their initial confinement until their attempted escape and beyond, Dard inveigles us in a bizarre guessing game as to which morally dubious man is which, as each tries to deceive and expose the true identity of the other. From the inherent violence of the institution at the hands of sadistic guards, to their quest for freedom, Dard keeps up this emotionally bleak, and sinister tone, which serves to unsettle the reader consistently throughout. I was quite frankly mesmerised from start to finish, despite the darkness and sense of base evil that the book consistently exhibits, and I loved the aspect of reader participation that Dard so skilfully wove into the tale as we seek to discover the true identity of each man, and the descent into immorality we are all capable of.

 

dardEqually, Bird In A Cage was imbued with a tantalising mix of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, as a man returns to Paris at Christmas to mourn, and settle the affairs, of his late mother. He encounters a beguiling woman with her young child, whilst dining out one night who inflames his curiosity, being both attractive and the added mystery of appearing to have bloodstains on her sleeve. When he is enticed to return to her apartment, he becomes embroiled in a sinister and dangerous conspiracy which seeks to unravel his life completely. The emotional intensity of this plot is in evidence from the outset, with the title referring to an innocuous Christmas gift for the child, and the psychological impasse that Albert finds himself in, Dard has constructed a claustrophobic existentialist drama that toys with the reader’s perception, and provides an additional deconstruction of male and female psychological impulses. This is a slim dark tale that is engaging enough, but did slightly lack the psychological edge, and bleak immorality of The Wicked Go To Hell, but is worth seeking out as an initial entry point into Dard’s not inconsiderable back catalogue.

 

img_0707In a change of pace and authorial style, I also read You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames, a novella that runs to 87 pages and soon to be a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix. Joe, a former FBI agent and U. S. Marine, harbouring the memories of an abusive childhood, and the violent events of his recent careers, now has largely dropped out from society, earning a living tracking down and rescuing young girls from the grip of the sex trade. Now he has been hired to save the daughter of a New York senator, held captive in a Manhattan brothel, but finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of conspiracy and violence. Described as a toxic shock of a thriller, this bijou slice of American noir, delivers a real punch to the reader, and I was mightily impressed how much well defined characterisation, and breadth of action, Ames crams into such a minimal page count. Quickly your sympathies for Joe is heightened and from the beginning you are rooting for him, your empathy well and truly put into overdrive as the mental and physical damage he has experienced is put sharply into focus, and there is a real strength to Ames’ writing in passages where Joe indulges in some critical self-examination of his own psyche. The degree of manipulation he experiences in the course of this mission is well wrought, and the violence throughout is swift and uncompromising, making this a real read-in- one-sitting thriller. My only slight bugbear is the slight cynicism of the ending which too obviously paves the way for a potential sequel, and left me a little unsatisfied, but with a cover price of less than a vacuous throwaway magazine there’s still plenty here for your fiver. Recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)

A Quick Sunday Five-A-Side…Alice Thompson/Luca Veste/Andrew Mayne/Hugo Wilcken/Jo Nesbo/

As promised here is a quick round-up of some of the October reads that I have been unable to post- some good, some indifferent and some disappointing. Have a look and make up your own minds…

bookcIn Edwardian England, Violet has a fairy tale existence: loving husband, beautiful baby son and luxurious home. She wants for nothing. But soon after the birth of her baby the idyll begins to disintegrate. Violet becomes obsessed by a book of fairy tales that her husband has locked away in a safe, and as paranoia sets in, she begins to question her own sanity, resulting in her internment in an asylum. Meanwhile, vulnerable young women are starting to disappear from the same asylum, and then found brutally murdered…

I must admit that the cover alone made me instantly put down the book I was reading and avidly leap on this one. Shallow I know. However, this was a little Gothic inspired piece of perfection, charting the mental degradation experienced by a naïve young woman in Edwardian England. Thompson balances the demands of depicting her chosen era with the tropes of the time, thus producing an incredibly authentic piece of writing that taps in perfectly to the psychological condition ‘the mad woman in the attic’ produced by a canon of writers. What was interesting, apart from the general darkness and murderous feel of the plot, was the way Thompson circumvented the genre towards the end of the book, through the use of language that her heroine Violet begins to display. The precise Edwardian vocabulary began to assume a more contemporary feel in the wake of Violet’s treatment at the asylum, and this proved an interesting divergence from the general feel of the book. With flayed corpses, books covered with human skin, and raging madness, this is definitely worth checking out…

(With thanks to Salt Publishing for the ARC)

lucaSocial media stars Chloe Morrison and Joe Hooper seem to have it all – until their bodies are found following an anonymous phone call to their high-profile agent. Tied and bound to chairs facing each other, their violent deaths cause a media scrum to descend on Liverpool, with DI David Murphy and DS Laura Rossi assigned to the case. Murphy is dismissive, but the media pressure intensifies when another couple is found in the same manner as the first. Only this time the killer has left a message. A link to a private video on the internet, and the words ‘Nothing stays secret’. It quickly becomes clear that more people will die; that the killer believes secrets and lies within relationships should have deadly consequences…

Bloodstream is the third Liverpool set police procedural by Luca Veste featuring detectives David Murphy and Laura Rossi. Tapping in perfectly to the insidious greed to base our lives on social media, and be obsessed with reality television, Veste has constructed an intriguing thriller using both of these trends as a backdrop. With a killer driven by an insidious desire to wreak his personal judgement on the secrets and lies that exist in personal relationships, Veste makes a good job of concealing his killer’s identity to near to the close of the book. It’s all pointing one way but no, you’d be wrong! With the established partnership of Murphy and firebrand Rossi gathering maturity, the reader is quickly enmeshed and comfortable with the dynamics of their working relationship. Murphy is still stoical and methodical, Rossi still a bit of a loose cannon, but rather sweetly now entering the realm of the grown-ups with a fledgling love affair. Although I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the previous two, due to the more understated characterisation of Murphy and Rossi , it is in no way a bad read. A solid police procedural with some nice little knowing nods to the world of Twitter and Facebook, makes for an enjoyable catch-up with the series.

(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)

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Meet Jessica Blackwood, FBI Agent and ex-illusionist. Called in because of her past to offer expertise on the mysterious ‘Warlock’ case, Jessica must put all her unique knowledge to the test as the FBI try to catch a ruthless killer. Needing to solve the unsolvable, and with the clock ticking, they’re banking on her being the only one able to see beyond the Warlock’s illusions…

Up until this very moment, I am still a little undecided as to whether I enjoyed Angel Killer or not. I think the safest thing to say is that I liked bits of it, but not convinced it totally worked as a whole. Written by a man with one foot in the world of magic and illusion, the actual baffling nature of the crimes were undoubtedly clever, and if ever a book was written to transfer to a big screen production, this would be it. The scope and scale of the criminal illusions perpetrated by The Warlock were unique, intriguing and a real highlight of the book. The characterisation of FBI agent, Jessica Blackwood with her mix of wide-eyed naivety, but quick witted intelligence was also well realised, and the background to her aptitude for magic influenced by her family’s involvement in this world of trickery was filled with Mayne’s undoubted knowledge of the craft. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the killer’s motivation, and I thought the ending was extremely damp squibbish. A mixed affair overall, but worth a look if you enjoy a pacey thriller and have an interest in magic and illusions on a grand scale.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

41ncvXMjr-L__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_1950s New York: Disturbed by a troubling phone call, Dr Manne isn’t himself when he’s called out by the police to evaluate a man suspected of psychosis. But the man is perfectly calm, and insists he’s not who the police says he is. Manne isn’t sure what to believe, but something definitely isn’t right. Before he knows it, he’s helping his patient escape from an unfamiliar psychiatric hospital that reminds him of a story he heard during the war, about a secret government medical testing programme. With the stranger asleep in his bed, and the distinct feeling that he’s being followed, Manne is determined to make sense of the events unfolding around him; that is until a careless slip on the subway leads to a horrific accident. Waking up in a hospital bed, Manne realises his own identity is not as certain as he’d always believed. What kind of a hospital is he in, why can’t he leave, and who is the pretty young woman on the balcony, who he watches from his window? As Manne pieces together the story, he realises that pretending to be someone else might be his only chance for escape.

Billed as a cross between Camus and Hitchcock, with shades of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, I must confess that for large parts of this book, I had not the faintest clue what was going on, but it mattered not a jot. This is not an easy read, and attention must be paid, as Wilcken unmercifully manipulates the character of Manne, and the reader’s sensibilities, in this twisted and cerebral tale of fluid identity and government conspiracy. It is without a doubt one of the most clever, perplexing and challenging books I’ve encountered this year, with its trail of red herrings, and it’s ability to make you flick back and forth thinking you have discovered a vital clue, only to be undone again by another shift of plot or characterisation. The backdrop of 50’s New York is perfectly realised throughout, and it’s a cracking slice of hardboiled noir to boot. Fancy a challenge? This one’s for you…

(With thanks to Melville House for the ARC)

51FIjE4xtVL__SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Jon is on the run. He has betrayed Oslo’s biggest crime lord: The Fisherman. Fleeing to an isolated corner of Norway, to a mountain town so far north that the sun never sets, Jon hopes to find sanctuary amongst a local religious sect. Hiding out in a shepherd’s cabin in the wilderness, all that stands between him and his fate are Lea, a bereaved mother and her young son, Knut. But while Lea provides him with a rifle and Knut brings essential supplies, the midnight sun is slowly driving Jon to insanity. And then he discovers that The Fisherman’s men are getting closer…

Following last year’s standalone novel Blood On Snow, Nesbo follows up with Midnight Sun another slightly compressed offering whilst we all eagerly await the next Harry Hole outing. This was okay, and I say that with reservations, as it did feel less well-formed, and slightly lackadaisical to his normal writing style. It was all a little ho-hum, let’s insert some info on the Sami lifestyle, bit of violence, touching moment of less than effective father raising money for sick child through nefarious means, interaction with cute kid he could then possibly adopt,  bit of violence (with a reindeer), love interest, bit more violence. And then a totally unsatisfactory ending – which was a real cop-out, and made me huff in despair. Overall quite disappointed, but liked the Sami bit. A bit.

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

 

 

 

Alexandra Sokoloff- Huntress Moon (FBI Thrillers Book 1)

alexsFBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can’t believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been present at each scene of a years-long string of “accidents” and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers: a female serial…

Huntress Moon is the first of a trilogy by Alexandra Sokoloff, that in a wonderful moment of serendipity, and the power of Twitter, I came to review. I think the fact that I read in this in somewhat of a vacuum, having been completely unaware of the author and these books, contributed even more so to my enjoyment of the book. Hence, the reason why I have given you only a snippet of the synopsis of the book, so that you can gain as much pleasure from discovering this intelligent and beautifully plotted thriller as I did.

Having just effectively boxed myself into a corner as to how far I can share the plot with you, I will reveal that we encounter this story from two narrative viewpoints, that of seasoned FBI investigator and the mysterious and violent female perpetrator he pursues. A satisfying aspect of this as a narrative structure is that Sokoloff retains an assured sense of balance between her two central protagonists, and as a reader you are discovering the bigger picture about our female killer through Roarke’s deeper investigation into her life, background, and why she exhibits such a compulsion for killing. The only book I can compare it to in terms of this structure would be Pierre Lemaitre’s compelling thriller Alex, where there is a gradual sense of the curtain being lifted on the central female protagonist, after a period of uncertainty on behalf of the reader as to her motivations. With Special Agent Roarke being so adept at reading the criminal mind, it is truly enthralling to see him confronted with the fairly unique prospect of tracking a female serial who in another intriguing twist, fails to comply with his cut-out Quantico image of why particular women are driven to kill. This is turn gives Sokoloff the opportunity to demonstrate a welcome degree of research on the psychology of killers, to intersperse the plot with some extremely interesting background detail on the psychopathy of serial or spree killers. Although this is quite a common trait amongst writers of serial killer thrillers, and some of the material was familiar from other books, I did learn a fair few things that I didn’t know before, and I particularly enjoyed the wider and more cerebral musing on the place of women in society in general, at odds with the oftentimes violent, patriarchal status quo.

In terms of characterisation, there was a glorious lack of cliché in relation to the depiction of both the central protagonists. Although Roarke is quickly revealed as a man whose personal relationships have suffered due to the demands of his job, which is not uncommon in law enforcement generally, I found him a mercurial, intelligent and completely engaging character. I was intrigued by the moral dilemma he found himself in as an essentially moral man, as he became more involved in his hunt, and certain details and heinous events became apparent to him. It gave a wonderful sense of his moral axis having to shift slightly as events played out, but undergoing a mental battle with his responsibilities as a federal officer pitted against his natural sense of empathy. Likewise, our female protagonist is multi-layered, leading the reader to question her motives, particularly when we see her entering alien environments, and reaching out to form relationships, but always with the underlying question as to what degree are her motives pure, or is she just bad to the bone? Hence, the shades of uncertainty that Sokoloff attributes to her characters, just serve to perplex the reader more, and increase our curiosity further…

With the further enticement two more titles in this series, Blood Moon and Cold Moon, I am genuinely pleased to have been introduced to this writer’s work. If you like your serial killer thrillers to be of the more intelligent variety, with a considered, well-researched approach, a real depth of plotting and character development, look no further. You’ve found it. Very enjoyable indeed.

Alexandra Sokoloff is the Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Black Quill Award-nominated author of the supernatural thrillers The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows, The Shifters, and The Space Between, and the Thriller Award-nominated, Amazon bestselling Huntress FBI thriller series (Huntress Moon, Blood Moon). As a screenwriter she has sold original horror and thriller scripts and adapted novels for numerous Hollywood studios. She has also written two non-fiction workbooks: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love,and has served on the Board of Directors of the WGA, west and the board of the Mystery Writers of America. Alex is a California native and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in theater and minored in everything Berkeley has a reputation for. In her spare time (!) she performs with Heather Graham’s all-author Slush Pile Players, and dances like a fiend. She is also very active on Facebook. But not an addict. Seriously, it’s under control. Visit her website here

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

 

 

Owen Laukkanen- The Professionals

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Four friends, caught in a terrible job market, joke about turning to kidnapping to survive. And then, suddenly, it’s no joke. For two years, the strategy they devise works like a charm – until they kidnap the wrong man. Now two groups are after them – the law, in the form of veteran state investigator Kirk Stevens and hotshot young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and an organized crime outfit looking for payback. As they crisscross the country in a series of increasingly explosive confrontations, each of them is ultimately forced to recognize the truth: the real professionals, cop or criminal, are those who are willing to sacrifice everything.

Owen Laukkanen’s The Professionals accompanied me to work everyday last week, the importance of that being, that when you settle down on your lunchbreak away from the trials and tribulations of the workplace and you just need to escape for a while, you need a book like this. Fast moving, plenty of twists and turns and a genuine lack of clues as to how the story will resolve itself. Should also say that thanks to Laukkanen, there were a couple of late returns back to work whilst reading this one!

The absolute stand out feature of this book for me, was the incredibly control of pace and plot that Laukkanen produces. I loved the initial premise of the story, that one career choice when you leave college with no hope of full time employment is to band together with a group of mates and just kidnap people. Don’t ask for huge ransoms. Don’t hurt them. Everyone’s a winner. But the best laid plans can always go awry and after kidnapping the wrong man our four amigos embark on a flight from justice after a particularly foolhardy act. Pursued by a dogged law enforcement officer working out of Minnesota, Kirk Stevens, and a ballsy FBI agent, Carla Windermere, the foolish foursome encounter numerous scrapes, violence and separation along the way, as well as picking up another stray soul to add to their number, and causing the dissolution of a relationship whose ferocity of passion would put Romeo and Juliet to shame. As the fugitives flee, drawing on their reserve of false identities, but troubled by their depleting funds, they are forced into another kidnap, and a bid to release one of their number from custody resulting in a tense, violent, and almost poignant conclusion. The plotting is almost seamless throughout, transporting the reader effortlessly from state to state, in a real game of cat and mouse, as the net closes on the kidnappers. Balanced perfectly between the increasing desperate measures adopted by the fugitives, and the mostly calm and controlled investigation by the law enforcement agencies, evinced by Laukkanen’s inclusions of FBI investigative procedures and practices, the book races to its conclusion at a breakneck speed, which does make it incredibly difficult to put down.

I thoroughly enjoyed the characterisation of the kidnappers, Arthur, Marie, Mouse and Sawyer, and the pivoting relationships between them, as the peril increased and the pressure really starts to rain down on them. I found the relationship between Arthur and Marie particularly touching and a wee bit heartbreaking (even for an old cynic like me) as you will discover for yourselves when you read it. I also enjoyed the banter and good natured joshing that existed between them, and the appearance of an almost sibling- like relationship particularly between Mouse and Sawyer. However, I was altogether less convinced about the police protagonists, and the hackneyed attempt at producing some kind of sexual tension between them, that felt altogether a bit forced. Also the sporadic interactions between Stevens and his wife, were all a bit chocolate box sweet and slightly nauseating. Really, in the light of how long he was actually away from home, this proved a bit of an unnecessary diversion to the intensity of pace that Laukkanen was building overall in the increasing pace and excitement of the investigation. All in all though, a pretty satisfying thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat, if not entirely perfect in the balance of the realisation of the characters.

(With thanks to Corvus for the ARC)