Blog Tour- G. D. Abson- Motherland

Student Zena Dahl, the daughter of a Swedish millionaire, has gone missing in St Petersburg (or Piter as the city is colloquially known) after a night out with a friend. Captain Natalya Ivanova is assigned the case, making a change for Natalya from her usual fare of domestic violence work, but, because of the family’s wealth, there’s pressure for a quick result. But as she investigates she discovers that the case is not as straightforward as it may seem…

Pining for the heady excitement of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 trilogy? Wishing that Martin Cruz Smith would recapture the magic of Gorky Park over and over again? Well fret no more gentle reader, as we may be onto a bit of a winner with Motherland, the first instalment of a new series featuring Captain Natalya Ivanova of the St Petersburg Criminal Investigations Directorate…

From the air of breathless danger that Abson introduces in the prologue, through to an extremely tense conclusion, real heart in the mouth stuff, I found this thriller utterly compelling throughout. I thought that Abson’s control of pace and tension was superb, and the balance between the domestic affairs and professional life of Ivanova, was spot on, with neither overpowering the other. They worked together to give the reader an extremely rounded depiction of all aspects of Ivanova’s life,  be it the professional tension of being married to a fellow crime investigator, the nefarious interference in their investigation by other Russian security services, and the sheer intensity and intrigue of the case itself involving a major figure in Swedish industry, and the suspected kidnap and murder of his adopted daughter. I also enjoyed the intermittent references to Putin, his rise to power, his strengthening grip on all aspects of Russian life, and how his shadow looms over the structures of law enforcement and criminal investigation, which reminded me strongly of David Young’s excellent depiction of Stasi interference in East Germany in his series featuring Major Karin Muller. All of these strands weaved in and out sustaining the reader’s interest and engagement, and I found it very difficult to second guess where the story was going, and who was the most duplicitous of the characters involved. There were some nifty little tricks and turns in the plot, and most satisfyingly I didn’t identify the utter rotter at the close of the book, but thought this revelation was unexpected, but totally believable in the context of the plot itself.

Another aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed were the little instances of gentle, and not so gentle, joshing that occur between Ivanova  and her colleagues, and the wonderfully eccentric babushka who inhabits the apartment next to that of the murdered girl, who finds herself inextricably linked to the case as the finale approaches. I enjoyed the building of tension and suspicion in Ivanova’s marriage, from her belief that her husband Misha has acquired dirty money, her growing reliance on alcohol and cigarettes, and her wonderfully lax approach to housework and cooking. She has a natural feistiness to her character that is endearing, and by the same token Abson does not make her some kind of indestructible kick-ass heroine, with the violence she experiences producing realistic results. I appreciated the balance that Abson brought to her character, and that her character is nicely defined by not being completely Russian, and that her upbringing in Germany, where her sister resides, could be expanded on in future books.

Overall, I thought Motherland was a strong, positive start to a series, introducing a notable female protagonist, and a nice little cohort of personal and professional relationships, that will give stability, and opportunities for character development in further books. Abson can dip his toes in an oligarch’s fountain, and avoid a trip to the gulag as Motherland was an extremely enjoyable thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Blog Tour- Olga Wojtas- Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar

Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name.

Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th-century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins.

But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

In the year that all of us Muriel Spark fans are taking advantage of the centenary celebrations to revisit her books, a lovely random invitation to join this blog tour enticed me with the dangling carrot of a book with shades of Spark’s most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Quite frankly I didn’t need asking twice, and although I rarely pick up comic crime capers, my interest was piqued by this one, and into the world of Shona, I eagerly scampered…

I think apologies are due to my fellow bus travellers, and staffroom sharers, who had to endure a flurry of guffaws and sniggers as I read this. This book is an absolute hoot, packed to the gills with entertaining misunderstandings, acerbic asides, and comic set ups that although by their very nature were farcical were not annoyingly so. Wojtas has an absolute field day with the inevitable gaps in communication- contemporary Scottish vs 19th century Russian- as Shona responds to each situation with her mellifluous brogue and earthy vernacular, underpinned by her obvious raw intelligence, and mischievous delight at bamboozling those around her. Although her use of language is the primary way she establishes an exotic difference from those around her, this is compounded by her encyclopaedic knowledge of facts and figures, accrued by her ‘crème de la creme’ education, and her by day. mild mannered librarian guise. She continually trawls the depths of this knowledge,  to try to establish which period of history she has been transported into, and readily draws on it she needs to extract herself from potentially socially awkward, or perilous situations. I have read other books that have used this conceit in relation to the character, but unlike those I found this clever, witty, and brain-tickling.  I have also absorbed a host of possibly useless knowledge, that may stand me in good stead one day, during a particularly knife-edge game of Trivial Pursuit…

Still on the subject of Shona, I would like to applaud the author on putting a more mature woman- no need for the ‘o’ word- as her central character, and the additional layer of fun it brings to the proceedings. With her obvious intelligence, comes a wonderful bluntness, and sense of self awareness that carries the plot beautifully, colouring her interactions with others, but also delightfully lowering her defences at times when her slight susceptibility to flattery becomes evident. She is proudly Scottish, totally adept at manipulating situations to her advantage, and exudes an air of confidence and charisma that charms and alienates in equal measure. As potent a figure as she is in the book, Wojtas does not neglect the need to provide Shona with a consummate surrounding cast, and this she achieves with her merry band of fatuous, wealthy upper class Russian women, and Shona’s inherited serfs, who ramp up the comic aspect of the plot, but allows us to recognise the unfairness and brutality of Russian life and society at this time. With reference to that, Wojtas places both Shona and us firmly in this period with her historical detail, and a heightened sense of place and atmosphere, with colourful, rich description, and accomplished scene setting.

Although I am not an ardent fan of the time travelling trope in fiction generally, I thought this was well executed, even if an amount of suspension of disbelief was needed, and the foray into the upper echelons of Russian society from the rarefied air of Morningside in Edinburgh was easy enough for Shona to insinuate herself in. Yes, the plot was a little obvious from a fairly early stage in the case of whodunit and indeed whydunnit, but to be honest, the book just carries you along on a stream of hilarity with our gung-ho gal Shona, that this matters little. A faint air of the ridiculous, more than a few belly laughs, and you may well pick up some interesting factoids too… Recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband Books for the ARC)

Catch the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

BlogTour- Rory Clements- Corpus

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Europe is in turmoil.
The Nazis have marched into the Rhineland.
In Russia, Stalin has unleashed his Great Terror.
Spain has erupted in civil war.
In Berlin, a young Englishwoman evades the Gestapo to deliver vital papers to a Jewish scientist. Within weeks, she is found dead in her Cambridge bedroom, a silver syringe clutched in her fingers. In a London club, three senior members of the British establishment light the touch paper on a conspiracy that will threaten the very heart of government. Even the ancient colleges of Cambridge are not immune to political division. Dons and students must choose a side: right or left, where do you stand?  When a renowned member of the county set and his wife are found horribly murdered, a maverick history professor finds himself dragged into a world of espionage which, until now, he has only read about in books. But the deeper Thomas Wilde delves, the more he wonders whether the murders are linked to the death of the girl with the silver syringe – and, just as worryingly, to the scandal surrounding King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson…

Corpus sets the scene for a new series of novels from historical crime thriller writer Rory Clements, already established with his John Shakespeare series. To be honest if Mr Clements had chosen a different career path, I and others may well have passed their history exams in a much more convincing fashion. Clements packs this book full of political and social detail, not only of England in a time of unrest and uncertainty, but extending the locus of the book to the worrying events across Europe. It is immensely gratifying to read a book that not only entertains and thrills consistently throughout with its compelling storytelling, but that uses the backdrop of historical events in such a clear and assured fashion, so much is learnt along the way too. Although as something of a Red, I’ve always had a lively interest in Russia and the Spanish Civil War, my previous knowledge of events in England, in particular, during this period was a little sketchy to say the least. Hence Clements’ depiction of the political scheming behind the abdication, and the social period detail did prove of real interest to this reader, and what a cast of absolute rotters Clements was given leave to draw on in the process.

The author perfectly incorporates some of the most momentous events from this period to add a vivid and atmospheric feel to the central plot, whilst also touching on issues of class and gender and the constraints of these on some of his protagonists. Equally, there is a studied and dispassionate air to characters from either the upper classes, or those who walk tall in the corridors of power, and who so firmly influence the lives of the masses. Using the Cambridge based American Professor Tom Wilde as a main character, is a clever touch, as the more nonsensical aspects of English and European society and politics are filtered through him to the reader, so we too can stand back and wonder at the rise of the fascists in England and abroad, and just how dangerous the establishment can be. Also by using the hallowed confines of a Cambridge college, Clements has a nice opportunity to expose some of the dissenting voices to the English political system with their communist leanings, albeit from the safety of their academic rooms.

There is an utterly convincing cast of characters in this book, each with an absolutely integral part to play as the plot twists and turns, and dangerous conspiracies are revealed. The reader is truly filled with an intriguing and alternating sense of trust and distrust, but also a real sense of empathy as Clements really does mete out some cruel and unusual punishments along the way. I was particularly drawn to Lydia Morris, a friend of the murdered girl, with her shambolic lifestyle, poetic leanings, appalling dress sense, and her earnest belief in helping others less fortunate than herself, though sometimes this doesn’t pan out too well. Clements really puts her through the wringer, as more by accident than design, she is drawn into the amateur investigation by the dashing Professor Wilde of murder and political skulduggery. They prove themselves an interesting combination as plotting toffs, Russian spies, and debonair double agents seek to impede their progress, and Clements ramps up the sense of peril as their investigation continues. Another stand-out feature of Clement’s characterisation is how neatly he forms our impressions of individuals even if they only have a minor part to play and appear solely at random intervals, leaving behind a striking visual image of themselves, but firmly rooting them into their particular niche in quite an extensive cast of characters.

All in all, I was rather impressed with this one, not only as a tense tale of political conspiracy and derring-do, but also as a very well characterised and compelling historical thriller. Looking forward to the next in the series too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Blog Tour- John Sweeney- Cold- Review

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In the feeble light of a London winter, Joe Tiplady walks his dog in the snow. He is not alone. Two men are tracking him, as is a woman with wolf eyes. Soon Joe will find himself caught in a storm of violence and retribution that he does not yet understand.

Around the world, a chain of events is in motion that will make Joe a priceless target. A retired Soviet general hunts for his missing daughter after a series of brutal murders. A ruthless assassin loses something so precious he will do anything to get it back. And in the mountains of Utah, a brilliant ex-CIA chief wrestles with his religion.

In the shadow of them all lies Zoba, strongman ruler of Russia and puppet-master of the world’s darkest operatives. Can Joe save himself from this dangerous web of power and revenge? Where can he run when there’s nowhere left to hide?

So, eyes down and here we go on the first stop of the Cold blog tour. Welcome aboard to a striking new thriller from intrepid journalist John Sweeney, who neatly uses some of the less savoury characters he’s encountered in his professional career to populate his cast of baddies. That Zoba, for example really reminded me of…er…whatshisname…you know the short Russian guy. But joking aside, I really rather enjoyed this tangential and breathless caper…

Split into three main storylines, and globe trotting from America to Europe, Sweeney weaves a tale of greed, deception and violence, that affords ample opportunity on the part of the author to expose and explore some well known conflicts and acts of dissension by weaving them into the back stories of his main protagonists. This also builds a rapport with us as readers, as we recognise both the more obvious, and sometimes more secretive allusions, to familiar events in history, and the less well documented incidents of corruption within governments or security services, that Sweeney has obviously witnessed. Sweeney consistently puts his characters into the hands of shady forces operating outside of their jurisdiction, causing them, and us as readers, a great deal of chagrin. There is a good use of circumnavigation throughout, and Sweeney places his characters, and thereby drives the plot forward, in his judicious use of a number of locations.

To be fair, I’m not sure that all threads of the story worked completely in symmetry with one another, as some characters seemed forgotten about for prolonged stretches of the book, or there was a certain amount of unexplained serendipity that transported other characters from A to B in the plotline so seamlessly. However, the plot did, for the most part, trot along quite nicely, and I liked Sweeney’s control of pace, ramping up the tension at the optimum moments. Overall, I found the story of Gennady, the retired Soviet general, seeking the truth about his daughter’s death, the most absorbing of the strands, and was genuinely moved and fearful for the resolution of his story as his actions became more desperate. His story also afforded us an opportunity to see inside the socio-political life of Russia a little more which added further interest to his narrative.  I was also quite taken with the quiet stoicism of ex- CIA operative Ezekial ‘Zeke’ Chandler, questioning his Mormonism, and revealing himself as an astute and wily operator when his razor sharp intelligence is called upon to help other characters out of a jam. I was less convinced by the pseudo James Bond pairing of Joe Tiplady, a former terrorist, and the sultry Russian femme fatale Katya Koremedova on the run from one of her particularly nasty compatriots- cue cut-out Russian baddies- and found their story arc slightly less credible overall, with some elastic plotting to push their story onward, and a smattering of slightly clunky dialogue when they are forced into more intimate scenarios. There’s also a couple of thankfully brief, excruciating sex scenes,  with a couple of lines of which made me laugh out loud, (howling like a wolf anyone?) which was probably not the intention, and again the Bond motif loomed large, as 007 always manages to squeeze in a bit of saucy business too. But on the subject of humour there are also some perfectly placed moments of levity and acerbic wit which were genuinely funny, and I also liked the slightly cheesy poetry recitation in the midst of peril. All will become clear.

As I said at the beginning of my review, I did rather enjoy this, and anyone looking for a new thriller with interweaving strands, locations and incisive socio-political comment can not go far wrong with this one. I really quite liked the intermittent naivety of plotting and characterisation,  as there were some real edge of the seat moments packing a proper punch, yet tempered by some interludes of clear sighted consideration of social ills, and other weighty issues. All in all,  an enjoyable thriller.

 

Follow the rest of the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Dan Smith- Red Winter

Product DetailsIt is 1920, central Russia. The Red Terror tightens its hold. Kolya has deserted his Red Army unit and returns home to bury his brother and reunite with his wife and sons. But he finds the village silent and empty. The men have been massacred in the forest. The women and children have disappeared. In this remote, rural Russian community the folk tales mothers tell their children by candlelight take on powerful significance and the terrifying legend of Koschei, The Deathless One, begins to feel very real. Kolya sets out on a journey through dense, haunting forests and across vast plains as bitter winter sets in, in the desperate hope he will find his wife and two boys, and find them alive. But there are very dark things in Kolya’s past. And, as he strives to find his family, there’s someone or something on his trail…

Following last year’s remarkable Ukranian set thriller The Child Thief, Smith returns with another foray into the dangerous and inhospitable territory of Eastern Europe, transporting the reader to the icy wastes of Central Russia 1920. From the very first page you are instantly filled with a sense of dread observing through a returning soldier’s eyes, a village lying still and silent with only the sounds of nature to fill the void. As Nikolai Levitsky observes the Marie-Celeste like environs of his former home, it becomes clear that something evil has cast its pall over the village; the men have been slaughtered and along with these men’s families,  Levitsky’s wife and children are nowhere to be found. Could this really be the work of Koschei, the Deathless One, a terrifying figure from Russian folklore or  is Levitsky’s fate tied to the consequences of a country in the grip of political and military terror…

What strikes me most about the book is the breadth and depth of Smith’s depiction of location and atmosphere, as we follow Levitsky’s cross country quest in search of his family. As a reader your senses are assaulted at every turn with the harsh and uncompromising nature of the landscape, chilling you to the core as the weather and terrain hamper Levitsky’s progress. In my naivety I believed that there are only so many ways of describing the biting conditions of a Russian winter, but Smith consistently implements such vivid descriptions of these surrounds that further embed themselves in your mind, constantly enriching your reading experience. Likewise, the grim realities of survival within these conditions are unflinchingly described throughout, so much so that you cannot look away and that touch on your humanity as to how people can carve a life for themselves with so much poverty and fear. Not only do they have to survive the daily grind, but find themselves unwitting victims in a turbulent and blood-stained period of Russia’s political history.

No character embodies these characteristics more than Nikolai Levitsky himself, a soldier and officer, now compelled to desert, who is cast into an emotional turmoil by the death of his brother, the disappearance of his family, and a man striving to come to terms with and escape from the horrors he has witnessed in the theatre of war. Levitsky is an essentially moral man, beginning to question his deepest held beliefs and assuming the role of a questing knight as his journey unfolds, and by his interactions with those the damaged souls he encounters along the way; Anna, a young girl who has lost her family, and with Tanya and Lyudmila, two fearless women who have their own reasons for tracking the Koschei. As their courses collide with the vestiges of Levitsky’s previous military life, there are powerful scenes of violence and heartbreak that are truly haunting, and which typify not only the propensity for immoral actions in a war torn country, but what betrayals people must stoop to in order to survive.

With its spare and uncompromising portrayal of  the historical period, the intertwining of perfectly placed references to traditional Russian folklore, the harsh environment that chills you to the marrow throughout, and a cast of characters that cannot fail to engage the reader, Dan Smith has produced another remarkable thriller, that is easily worthy of a place in my best reads of 2013 so far. Superb.

Growing up, Dan Smith followed his parents across the world to Africa, Asia and South America. Now living in Newcastle with his family, his writing is still inspired by all corners of the globe. His debut novel DRY SEASON won critical acclaim and an array of prize nominations, including a shortlisting for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel DARK HORIZONS was followed in 2012 by THE CHILD THIEF. Find out more about Dan at  www.dansmithbooks.com Follow on Twitter @DanSmithAuthor

 Dan Smith, acclaimed author of The Child Thief and his new novel Red Winter will be at The Murder Room forum from the 15th to 21st July 2013 to answer your questions about his books and the life of an author. Post your questions and Dan will be there to answer them!http://www.themurderroom.com/forum/

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)