On a morning commuter train in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, the lives of three people briefly intersect. Sally is a 17-year-old, tentatively stepping into womanhood. Brendan is a middle-aged widower, living in the shadow of his wife's death. Tamas is a Hungarian immigrant, missing his wife and child as he struggles to begin a new life far from home. Meanwhile, in a nondescript building near Dunedin's Otago University, Farida translates messages for the security services and catches glimpses of a plot that could threaten them all.
THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR is such an interesting idea - multiple characters living separate lives, getting on with their day to day existences, moving through place and time without knowing each other, or even being aware that there will come that intersecting point - a morning commuter train in Wellington. It's an appealing idea as we become increasingly aware of the randomness of fate in our modern day world.
As the individual stories of the characters are built, alongside the shadowy world of surveillance and external threat, the reader is left constantly wondering not just what is the thing that connects all these people, but when will it happen. This could leave some searching for some sort of connection with these disparate stories, as that connection to character is paramount, because the threat is so insidiuous, taking what feels like a long time to eventuate. For this reader it engendered a somewhat detached feeling, observational as opposed to intuitively emotionally invested. What investment that did eventually occur then felt a bit engineered, almost like the threat came at a point where disconnection was starting to become an issue. Perhaps there was something there mirroring standard government behaviour where it's hard to miss the occasional external threat chucked into the daily message when it's become obvious that voters are switching off in droves.
Having said that, THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR is obviously exploring love, loss and human relationships against the backdrop of threat - maybe if you approach the novel less as a crime novel or thriller and more as a look at the human condition, as there's much to consider from the later point of view.
Review - Please Do Not Disturb, Robert Glancy
A funny, disturbing, and deeply affecting novel of power, corruption, and innocence in colonial Africa, by the author of Terms & Conditions.
As the African nation of Bwalo prepares for The Big Day—the only day in the year the ailing King talks to his subjects—we meet five very different people:
Charlie, a curious boy with a dangerous dictaphone habit, eavesdrops on the eccentric guests of the Mirage Hotel.
PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB comes with a wonderfully evocative sense of place and people, delivered with an affectionate comic touch. There's something reminiscient in here of lots of these styles of novels set in developing nations, where the people in positions of power and leadership are over the top, the worker's invariably put upon, hard working and blessed with bucket loads of patience and understanding, and everything seems to sort of muddle along in a way that would drive incomers mildly mad if you didn't see the funny side of it.
Glancy does a terrific job here at pointing out the absurbities in elegant prose. It is, however, populated by a huge cast of characters, contributing a lot of similar narrative voices to a plot which is frequently overcrowded with points to be made, and lacking forward drive as a result. Great sense of place and character though - possibly just needs a bit more focus, drive and maybe a more judicious spread of the personalities over more than one outing.
Book Review - Rather be the Devil, Ian Rankin
The death of Maria Turquand had all the ingredients that would have appealed to the salacious public forty years ago; a beautiful woman, gangsters, drugs and rock stars. Not everyone from those glory days has moved on from Edinburgh and it pleases retired detective John Rebus that this is a cold case with connections to the present. Old crimes can still wound. Secrets from the past can forever alter those that are forever tasked with keeping them hidden.
It's quite possible that there will be a few moments during the reading of this novel where you will want to punch the air in pride. Our man Rebus still has the sharpest wit around and eases his way around tricky situations with the practiced air of one who expects little of others but demands much of himself. The acceptance of DI Siobhan Clarke and DI Malcolm Fox that Rebus will always a part of their investigative lives is well and truly established in RATHER BE THE DEVIL; it is both sweet and savvy of them both. The Rebus novels remain fiendishly clever and there's that continuing comfort also in knowing that John Rebus will not twilight out fighting the good fight alone. Having the serving Scotland police force continue to accept the input of an ex detective like Rebus, who always unashamedly operated within his own unique moral code, is supremely satisfying to his long time fans.
RATHER BE THE DEVIL is not quite new light through old windows but by novel's end you are quite refreshed and confident that this series will continue to go from strength to strength, even with the changing of the guard. The world of Rebus is now very insular – need a cop, use Malcolm and Siobhan, need a criminal lord, there’s always big Ger Cafferty etc – but the novels continue to be loaded to the hilt with vicious crimes and complicated agendas. RATHER BE THE DEVIL is a tighter work than a few of its series predecessors in that the series strengths are being employed all at once to produce an absorbing crime novel that would hold its own to a new reader, plus reaffirm the devotion of an existing fan of author Ian Rankin.
Review - Good Cop Bad Cop, Gus Mitchell
Detective Jim Kelleher's daughter Annie is a teenage prostitute who's addicted to crystal meth but in his eyes she's still a lamb being preyed upon by wolves. He feels she's far too close to her Polynesian gangster boyfriend and the motorcycle gang and the triads he deals drugs with... and is there even some more forbidden cargo? Meanwhile, Jim's new partner Stuart has the unenviable task of trying to stop Jim from falling victim to the same temptations he's trying to save his daughter from.
A take on a noir romp with stylised good cop / bad cop characters, humour is a huge part of GOOD COP BAD COP. Therein lies probably the biggest problem - find it funny and it's going to work really well. Find it somewhat forced and the misogyny and objectification comes across as a bit creepy. Tackling a range of current day issues - from meth addiction to sex trafficking, there's a lot of sexual politics at the heart of GOOD COP BAD COP into the bargain. Whilst there's an interesting dynamic going on between the Good and the Bad cop of the title, you will need to deploy a hefty serving of disbelief suspension. Whether or not readers can handle that is going to be well and truly dictated by personal taste and whether or not the overall tone works for them.
Review - A Confidential Agreement, Rita Ryan
A small community, broken families, a bloody murder, and an ending you won’t see coming
When Frida Delaney returns home to New Zealand after a self-imposed exile the last thing she expects to find is her neighbour’s bloody body and to be caught up in a murder inquiry. An inquiry that reaches into the darkest side of politics, financial conspiracy and families.
A CONFIDENTIAL AGREEMENT is one of those books that you really want to work. Populated with some really engaging characters, built around a strong central premise, it's let down in the end by a lack of firm editing and direction. Overly wordy, there's a tendency to disappear off on tangents and down rabbit holes of diversion which detract too often, and too overwhelmingly from the main plot lines, hampering the reader's ability to connect with that central premise.
Review - Revealed in Mist, Jude Knight
Prue's job is to uncover secrets, but she hides a few of her own. When she is framed for murder and cast into Newgate, her one-time lover comes to her rescue. Will revealing what she knows help in their hunt for blackmailers, traitors, and murderers? Or threaten all she holds dear?
Enquiry agent David solves problems for the ton, but will never be one of them. When his latest case includes his legitimate half-brothers as well as the woman who left him months ago, he finds the past and the circumstances of his birth difficult to ignore. Danger to Prue makes it impossible.
REVEALED IN MIST is weighted heavily on the romance side, with a tendency towards a showy style of descriptive text to reinforce the period setting. Possibly one for fans of historical romance as opposed to crime fiction, and definitely not for those who like their crime front and centre of the novel's main purpose.
Review - Home, Harlan Coben
To Myron Bolitar, his college roommate Win is family. It’s been a very long time since either he or the enigmatic Win Lockwood have had to share a room but their lives have been intertwined in love and danger ever since. So when the call for help comes from Win, Myron does not hesitate. There has been a sighting in the UK of Winn’s cousin Rhys who was snatched from a playdate along with his best friend Patrick. The two boys have possibly been used in the UK sex trade the entire time they have been missing. Winn at first tries on his own to snatch one of the boys but it does not go so w
What do we expect out of a Myron Bolitar novel? Wise cracking bromance laughs, the good guys winning, the unexpected twists and the odd punch up. We have all of those in HOME only here it’s a little on mute and the lines for who we are supposed to be barracking for are getting a little blurry. What is most welcome here is that we are privy to the thoughts that are coasting around in the more pragmatic head of Win Lockwood. As always, Win’s character is strong enough to sculpt a novel alone without the softer addition of his best friend in all things, Myron Bolitar. Here in HOME, we receive the points of view of both men.
The familiar cast are getting a bit of a clean up to become more politically correct and this does soften their edges, 11 books in. Regardless, HOME is a welcome visit with old friends. HOME may be a deliberately crafted deliberate step in a long running series which could end on a high or slowly coast out due to the realistic ageing and changes in circumstances for Myron. Not entirely sure whether I want to see Win humanized with family connections, but again perhaps that’s been written in to indicate a change in direction for the series.
HOME is another entry in a series that never fails to deliver the thrills and spills with enough levity to bring it out of the dark. There are twists you won’t see coming and these are still the guys that you wish could have your back in real life.
Review - Burn Patterns, Ron Elliott
To her clients and colleagues, Iris is a therapist in a city psychology practice. But to the police and fire services, she is the Fire Lady – a profiler of arsonists.
After a troubled young man burns down her office, Iris just wants a quiet life. But her peace is shattered when a bomb goes off at a local school. Called in to help, Iris meets James, delusional and dangerous, and Chuck, a lone investigator tracking a serial arsonist he calls Zorro.
Partly a story around Iris Foster, partly a story around arson, BURN PATTERNS puts a complicated woman at the heart of a story about complicated offenders. Known as "The Fire Lady" Foster is a psychologist with a messy past that she's tried to put behind her. Until mid consultation with patients nothing to do with fires, she's hauled out by the police and taken straight to the site of a bomb planted at a local school. It doesn't matter how hard Iris tries to step away from her role as "Fire Lady" she's dragged back in - particularly as the initial bomb explosion leads to a range of other dangerous situations behind which there seems to be a serial bomber / arsonist.
Goodness knows why, but authors seem inclined to shy away from creating complicated, flawed characters in local crime fiction, as here Iris Foster proves what fertile, and discomforting territory they can be. BURN PATTERNS is as much about her as it is about the serial arsonist she pursues, and her characterisation is undoubtedly the great strength of the novel. A disconcerting one no doubt as Foster battles with her working past and present, her relationship with the emergency services and her status as the Fire Lady, and doubts and insecurities about her marriage and relationship with her daughter. Given her profession, she's oddly passive about all her problems and doubts, choosing to internalise much, which makes her a particularly interesting character to read about. She's not immediately likeable and in fact can be quite off-putting.
Around Foster's personal problems there swirls a complicated plot of arson, bomb attacks, a delusional patient and a lone fire investigator. Plot, unfortunately is sometimes sacrificed to the struggles of character however, and it often requires some Herculean efforts of concentration to keep track of who does what when and to who. Which to be fair, goes well with the overwhelming feeling of just about everybody hanging on by their fingertips within the narrative itself. That sense of barely managing to keep it together goes with the ending which is somewhat rushed, although you could also describe it as unexpectedly restrained. It feels like a lot remains unanswered just as a lot of what's really going on with Foster remains unanswered for most of the novel.
BURN PATTERNS was a most unusual reading experience. Bet you any money, it leaves as many readers unsatisfied, as it does those keen for more.
#review Ruby and the Blue Sky, Katherine Dewar
Grammy night, 2021. Ruby wins 'Best Song' and makes an impulsive acceptance speech that excites nature lovers across the world. While Ruby and her band celebrate, an extreme evangelical sect, funded by covert paymasters, dispatches a disciple on a ruthless mission to England.
As the band plays its sold-out tour, Ruby is pursued by eco-groupies insisting she use her new fame to fight climate change.
Coming at an eco-thriller from the point of view of the activists, RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY is part thriller, part exploration of "celebrity" culture, and part do good chick lit novel. The idea at the core is that fame can be used in positive ways - in this case a pro-environment, anti consumer-culture stance with a hefty dose of women's rights and empowerment.
To that end the central character Ruby is band leader, conscience and activist, pursued by eco-groupies, determined to ensure she uses a sold-out tour as a venue to push the messages. Needless to say message is a major part of this novel, with other elements, particularly those likely to be associated with thrillers, tending to be pushed to the background, or mostly, the later parts of the book.
Tone is important here and it's definitely designed to be on the lighter side, which doesn't always serve as a vehicle for delivery as the message often disappears into ancillaries (such as dedicated environmental warriors sitting around discussing nail polish colours).
There's also a brave undertaking being attempted for a thriller here - with the threat somehow always feeling slightly off-stage. It all does come down to the comment in the blurb - one young woman leading change in a sea of cynical old men and money-grubbing corporations. Whether or not that possibility is argued to any reasonable conclusion is going to come down to whether or not the style and structure of RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY works for individual readers.
Review - Payback, Geoff Palmer
Solikha Duong lives the carefree life of a village girl in northern Cambodia until her world is torn apart by ‘truck men’ from the south. But Solikha is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight ...
Alice Kwann is on vacation when she’s set upon by thugs at a stopover in northern Nevada. But Alice too is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight ...
What binds these women together is a shocking trade – the third-largest criminal activity in the world – but one we’d rather ignore.
A vengeance styled thriller, set in Asia, PAYBACK tackles sex-trafficking and child abuse head on. Opening with the recounting of a young village girl being trucked off to the south of the country, along with many others, to be forced into a child sex ring. The resourcefulness this young girl and the small boy she has befriended show in escaping their intended fate goes on to be reflected in adult life, with the two of them staying in touch, close friends to this day.
The blurb includes the line: "What binds these women together is a shocking trade - the third-largest criminal activity in the world - but one we'd rather ignore." That really should stop anybody dead in their tracks. If the sex-trafficking is that big, and child sex trafficking is included in that figure then what on earth is wrong with us as a species?
Whilst there is much that is shocking in PAYBACK, there is also much that is hopeful - built in main around the central character - a strong, sympathetic and complex female protagonist who is not adverse to a bit of action hero fighting into the bargain. The only slight downside to her is a bit of heavy lifting to create vulnerability in the character which isn't always convincing and didn't feel necessary. On the upside however, the subject matter is handled sensitively, there's layers to the revenge aspects of the story, and the US setting rings true.
Overall PAYBACK is a good action thriller that's well worth reading. If I'm reading Palmer's website correctly it's the first he's written, given his other novels appear to be in the fiction / science fiction / young adult category.