There is no warning for Nora that her sister Rachel is about to be taken away from her.
This is a very polished work from a debut author. Nora is quite alone in her new reality despite all the new people she now has to deal with as the investigation into the killing develops. Author Flynn Berry has nailed that sense of being alone in a crowded room, as we see Nora struggles to push on with memories of her sister constantly crowding and infiltrating her new reality. There are moments when you are reading that you will go "oops, nope, we're in the past again" as previous conversations with Rachel shadow Nora in the present. Nora doggedly seeks out and speaks to those that knew Rachel, beginning to doubt what she is being told and with time, beginning to doubt her own knowledge of her sister. Love these unexpected debut delights! UNDER THE HARROW is quite delicious; all the right thriller ingredients are there and your plane ride or night in at home is now spoken for. It won't take you long devour this absorbing little novel that deposits you straight away into the lonely world of a single Londoner who is left behind after the brutal murder of the one woman she would always see as her anchor - her sister.
BOOK REVIEW: THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill
Opening into an evolving new world where people are suffering from a highly contagious illness that causes them to burn from within when stressed, the pace is fast and we’re desperate for details. Enter cool headed school nurse Harper Grayson who is one of those remarkable people who manages to keep it all together in times of crisis.
Hill writes with confidence but there are assumptions made on his readers; a bit more clarification between the actuals and the fantastic would have been appreciated; in many of the action scenes of John (for example) we are not sure whether some of his fiery weapons are born from himself ie in the supernatural realm of his new capabilities, or if they are something more mechanical that he has created as a ruse.
Let’s talk size. The epic novels generally are also doorstoppers; we get that they require the commitment. What THE FIREMAN actually needed was a savage edit. We are quite caught up in the how the whole world is going down but if we’re investing in such a weighty novel, we need to see the disintegration of society on a grander scale. If the novel had to be confined to one town, perhaps it would have served the novel better to have a whole town story with multiple perspectives. This book has a lot of meandering filler which wasn’t required. It got at times a little insular and suffocating. With some tightening up, we may just have had the reader powering through, gratifyingly sure that there is a terrific battle or insight just around the corner.
Let’s talk characters! When they are facing the end of the civilized world, we really want to care about the survivors. It is hard to find anyone to empathize or care too much about in this novel. Our heroine makes a stupendously idiotic decision right at the start which affects her safety and mobility for the rest of the book. She compounds this soon after with another clanger. Everyone in her new community is either creepy or intent on living in a bubble when common sense would dictate they move the heck along before the town’s self-appointed saviours tracks them down.
THE FIREMAN for sure has that post apocalyptic wonder (who will survive, how will they survive?) and does a good job of conveying the fear and confusion in one pocket of the world as it all goes to hell. It doesn't quite balance the divide between horror and science fiction but will be the one to read when you are wanting to leave the world behind and be an observer in another possible version of our own.
Review - THE ASSASSINS, Gayle Lynds
Six top international assassins are locked in a battle to the death. Only one will be left standing.
Gayle Lynds has been hailed as one of the best thriller writers in the business. No small feat for a genre that has been traditionally dominated by men. Her latest book, The Assassins, still has all of the boys and toys that readers have come to expect from the genre (none of her six assassins are women) but also has some strong female characters to round out the cast.
The Assassins begins during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Six assassins, previously hired by Saddam Hussein have come in to Baghdad under the cover of the US Invasion to steal a valuable antiquity in recompense for payment not received from the dictator. During their escape, they break the tablet that they have come to steal and each of the six gets a few of the pieces. Twelve years later someone is trying to reassemble the prize by having the assassins take each other out and collect the pieces. Caught up in the action is former US spy, and sometime assassin himself, Judd Ryder and his almost lover and CIA newbie Eva Blake.
As the action heats up and the body count mounts, the plot turns out to be nowhere near as simple as the hunt for some tablet pieces. Lynds has embedded the action in a twisting and turning plot that brings the action back to Iraq and, more broadly Middle Eastern politics. Unfortunately, in order to do so she has to spend a large part of the second half of the book setting up the backstory. This drains the narrative of a fair amount of tension but it manages to pick up again for a finale involving the requisite revelations and moustache twirling, damsels in distress, daring escapes and last minute saves.
While The Assassins uses global politics as a jumping off point it never takes itself too seriously. The characters are the types that you would expect from a novel of this type, including the venal head of the secret security group who can’t see a conspiracy when it’s staring him in the face, his grizzled deputy who goes off-book because he trusts his gut, the plucky CIA rookie who is better at her job than people expect and the assassin with an honour code. Ryder, the main character, is everything you expect when you pick the book up – smart, resourceful, a healthy disregard for authority, and a need to save the world. The assassins themselves are differentiated by their style of killing (sniper bullet, fake accident, knife etc) which serves to stand in for any attempt to actually give them personalities.
All of the ingredients, while expected, are exactly what thriller readers come for. And Lynds handles them well. Ryder and Blake have starred before, but no familiarity of the previous books is required to enjoy this volume. There is nothing startlingly original here but for readers looking for a solid action thriller The Assassins will fit the bill.
Review - PLEASANTVILLE, Attica Locke
Political thriller and social comment combine in this thrilling third novel from Orange Prize shortlisted author of Black Water Rising.
It's 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville - the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949.
Attica Locke’s first novel Black Water Rising, a legal thriller involving big oil, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and heralded the arrival of a new talent. In Pleasantville, Locke’s third novel, she returns fifteen years later to the protagonist of her debut, Jay Porter, and drops him into the middle of a mix of murder, politics and general skulduggery back in his hometown.
Pleasantville is a suburb in Houston, established in the post-war period for aspiring black families. The residents have spent years fighting for the amenities that other communities took for granted. But fifty years later things are starting to change. It is 1996, and as Clinton is swept back into power, Axel Hathorne, former Chief of Police and son of one of the founding families of Pleasantville, finds himself having to fight in a run-off election for Mayor against his main rival, the DA Sandy Wolcott. He expects to have Pleasantville behind him in the election, but things are not that simple anymore.
Jay Porter, the central player in Pleasantville, is a fascinating, well-drawn character. A Houston local and former social activist, Jay is struggling to raise his two children following the death of his wife from cancer. Jay built his career on class actions suits following his success against Cole Oil in Black Water Rising. But what he considers his last case, brought on behalf of the citizens of Pleasantville against a local chemical company, is foundering as he struggles to stay focussed. When a girl goes missing on election night and Axel’s nephew is accused of her murder, Jay is drawn in and finds himself exactly where he does not want to be – back in court.
The murder mystery, while driving the plot, is not the central concern of the book. While it ostensibly about a local mayoral election, it is also more broadly about the American political landscape. In its exploration of the suburb, its residents and the way they have changed over time, it Pleasantville is also about broader social change.
Pleasantville has everything - politics, murder, mystery, courtroom drama, and a deep emotional core in its focus on Jay Porter and his relationships. Locke effortlessly keeps all of these elements in the air, revealing elements of the plot sparingly, dropping twists like bombshells. Pleasantville is crime writing as it should be – engaging, compulsive and surprising but never losing sight of deeper social and human drivers that sit behind the action.
Review - A QUIET END, Nelson DeMille
After a showdown with the notorious Yemeni terrorist known as The Panther, life seems to be getting quieter for maverick Federal Agent John Corey. Professionally sidelined, away from his wife, and partnered up with a young, good-looking rookie named Tess, Corey is saddled with a dead-end job running easy surveillance on a group of Russian U.N. delegates in New York City.
Nelson DeMille has been pumping out high intensity thrillers for years. In the last few years, these thrillers have centred around action man and wise-cracking maverick John Corey. Starting with Plum Island, back in 1997, Corey has battled some of the most notorious middle-eastern terrorists, most with animal names – the Lion and the Leopard. Corey, looking for a break from all of this action, and on the nose with his superiors, opts for a ‘quiet end’ – taking a job with the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, charged with watching potential spies in and around New York.
By the time Corey’s first person narration begins, however, the reader knows there is trouble brewing. In a short prologue, a Russian diplomat, who is actually a member of the Russian secret service, has been given the green light to enact a nefarious plan, the details of which are unknown. Of course, it just so happens that this is the diplomat who Corey and his team have been tasked with following. So that when things start to go pear shaped, Corey is on the scene and ready to do what it takes to foil the plot.
Not a lot makes sense in this book. There is no cogent reason given for the Russians to want to put in place a plan that will lead to massive destruction and loss of life unless you accept that they are obviously nasty and that we shouldn’t forget the cold war because they haven’t. There is also no obvious reason for Corey to break protocol in such a way that he stumbles on the plot, except that he is just that kind of guy. But like its cinematic equivalents, this is probably a book where you should just leave the analytical part of your brain at the door.
The Russian plan itself is spectacularly complicated, but the reader is given plenty of insight into it through fairly tedious narrative that follows the Russians as they set the whole thing up. This complexity gives Corey plenty of time to figure it out and call in the troops who, of course, can't help him in time so he has to go it almost alone. But it also slows the pace of the book down to a crawl in some places. And knowing the plot in detail makes Corey’s leaps of logic, given the paucity of information at his disposal, look like nothing short of genius.
If you are a reader who has been following the exploits of John Corey over the past eight years and are keen for more then this may be the book for you. If not, then it might be time to find another thriller writer or dip back into DeMille’s extensive back catalogue, as most of these are better reads.
Review - DEATH-WATCH, John Dickson Carr
In the shadowy hallway of the clockmaker's old house a policeman is found murdered, a steel clock hand embedded in his neck. A thing with gilt-painted hands scuttles across London roof-tops. These are just two of the frightening scenes in Dr. Gideon Fell's most frightening case- a case that starts with a knife-wielding shoplifter and ends with a portly detective using a mad-man to capture a murderer.
Originally published in 1935, DEATH-WATCH is the fifth book in the Dr Gideon Fell series by "golden-age" writer John Dickson Carr.
After marrying an Englishwoman, Dickson moved to London, the setting for many of his novels. Referred to as one of the "Golden Age" writers of mysteries, most of the books relied on complex plots, although Dickson was a particular proponent of the "locked room" style of puzzle. Dr Gideon Fell is one of the great solvers of the seemingly impossible crime and in DEATH-WATCH he is working closely with Inspector Hadley to solve the odd mystery of the death of an undercover policeman. The house in which the policeman died is that of clockmaker Johannus Carver, who is then connected to another case - the wounding of a store detective - and the theft of jewellery and a unique watch, also connected to the house via the maker.
DEATH-WATCH really is a classic "Golden-Age" mystery, with a complex plot relying on connections and circles within circles. To say nothing of wading through a lot of red-herrings and around a lot of possible suspects. Much of the investigating relies on the keen observation of Dr Fell, who notes, sees and considers all the actions, and comments of everyone who lives in the house. Needless to say the police are there to run errands, pick up evidence and generally serve the machinations of the Great Detective.
Obviously this is old style mystery writing, so it is very wordy compared to current standards, and quite convoluted in places. There's also a decided propensity to write hysteria and oddity into just about every female character in the book - they are either prone to suspicious behaviour, over the top outbursts, mad personal affectations, or completely bland. In DEATH-WATCH this tendency seemed to be even more pronounced than normal even allowing for the time that the novel was originally written.
If you are a fan of Golden-Age mystery writing, then you might already have come across the Dr Gideon Fell novels. If they are new to you, and you can handle the wordiness and the attitude towards women then this book is perfectly readable as a starting point, or a point in the middle, or even if you're in the mood to work your way through the series from the beginning.
Review - NOAH'S RAINY DAY - Sandra Brannan
From birth, Noah Hogarty has lived with severe cerebral palsy. He is nearly blind, unable to speak, and cannot run, walk, or crawl. Yet his mind works just as well as any other twelve-year-old’s—maybe even better. And Noah holds a secret dream: to become a great spy, following in the footsteps of his aunt, Liv “Boots” Bergen.
NOAH'S RAINY DAY is the fourth novel in the Liv Bergen series, although it's the first I've come across. Which could be quite a large part of my problem - I really could not work out who was who and what was going on. Was truly lost, and slightly baffled for the entire book.
The character of Noah is obviously carefully crafted to tug at the heart strings, as well as provide somebody to really barrack for. Even the bloodhound Beulah is a strong character, much stronger than the central character, Bergen, whose voice seemed strangely wishy washy. That wasn't helped at all by the fact that there is obviously a lot of back story to Bergen, her family (I lost track of who was who) and what connection there was somewhere between the missing boy's family and Bergen's family. Actually that's not true, I really couldn't see the point of it. But there's also the enigmatic lover Jack (who seemed a rather standoffish sort of a bloke for a "lover"), and the rather "convenient" element of having a kidnapped boy held in the house next door to Noah. To say nothing of senior officers stomping around on crime scenes, and some rather baffling flummoxing around by the investigation team.
NOAH'S RAINY DAY is probably one of those books that, if you've read the earlier ones in the series, works for you. It's also seemingly a series designed to give people somebody to really barrack for (assuming Noah, although Bergen's probably got her cheer-squad as well). To be honest I never really connected with any of them - and spent most of the book feeling somewhat like I'd shown up at a party in fancy dress, when that idea had been dropped by the hosts weeks ago.
TOMORROW CITY - Kirk Kjeldsen
After an armored car robbery goes horribly wrong and leaves four people dead, young ex-con Brendan Lavin flees New York City and attempts to start over again in Shanghai. But twelve years later, after opening a bakery under an assumed name and starting a family with a local woman, his former colleagues show up and force Brendan to assist in another armed robbery, of a wealthy diamond merchant. If he doesn’t cooperate, they’ll expose him and kill his family. Will Brendan help them pull it off and keep his new life intact?
Obviously when you're a young ex-con you would restart your life outside using the skills that you learnt in jail. It made enormous sense that young ex-con Brendan Lavin would start a bakery under those circumstances. It also made sense that because the bakery is struggling to survive he'd be convinced to get back into the old gang for just one big job. Which goes, of course, pear-shaped. So of course he'd flee New York City and head for Shanghai...
Okay so that last bit had me a little confused. It's not the immediate path you'd imagine. And it's a real testament to TOMORROW CITY that up until Lavin starts setting up another bakery in Shanghai, well into his life in the Chinese city that I suddenly thought.. what the. It was probably about the time that his ex-gang mates started showing up in Shanghai. Mind you, the thought was easy to bury. Too busy following things as they moved at a rapid pace into more pear-shaped carry-on only this time in China.
It helps that Lavin is a really great central character, flawed but well-meaning, hard-working and only dragged back to the dark side of life with regret. Of course it also helps that the gang mates aren't so well-meaning, their ruthlessness is as stark as Lavin's conflict.
It's a wild ride at points, with some in your face violence and, courtesy of the gang, some breathtaking lack of concern for others in the world. Not so Lavin who somehow remains very human, very believable and very vulnerable. Sure he escapes the mess he gets into in Shanghai but at what cost. Maybe he can start all over again. But at what cost. I hope we find out in a subsequent book.
BAD MONKEY - Carl Hiaasen
Andrew Yancy--late of the Miami Police, soon-to-be-late of the Key West Police--has a human arm in his freezer. There's a logical (Hiaasenian) explanation for that, but not for how and why it parted from its owner. Yancy thinks the boating-accident/shark-luncheon explanation is full of holes, and if he can prove murder, his commander might relieve him of Health Inspector duties, aka Roach Patrol.
Having been somewhat underwhelmed by most Hiaasen books up until this point, I suspect I picked up BAD MONKEY due to sheer perverseness on my part. I'd heard a few comments that were less than complimentary from readers that I know have loved those earlier books that have mostly ended up in my could not finish pile.
There's always been an over the top feeling to these books, and a tendency for one of those senses of humour that insists on telling the joke, and then explaining the joke, that must be an acquired taste. But humour is an extremely subjective thing and you have to give any author that uses it with a sledgehammer effect points for bravery... or their own particular perverseness of course.
Whilst there are aspects of BAD MONKEY that are a bit out there (arms in freezers after all), it wasn't overplayed or constantly waved around under your nose (pun only marginally intended). Which actually made the whole joke funnier, subtle, considerably less stomach churning than you'd think. Along with the problems of a cop turned Health Inspector that can never eat out in his own neighbourhood ever again. Andrew Yancy was a character that I could find a connection with. Much of what happens to Yancy (either as a result of circumstances or because he's poking around in places where even cockroaches would not dare to go), is funny. His ongoing wars with his idiot next door neighbour had me laughing, a Monkey with an attitude had me smiling.
Leaving aside the lack of overtly and over the top gruesomeness, there was more than enough to keep me reading here. What with scams, odd activities with vacuum cleaners, Bad Monkey's, a Voodoo Dragon Queen, girlfriends and enough dodgy attitudes to make anybody with any interest in Political Correctness curl up in a corner and sob, there's not many dull moments in BAD MONKEY. These aren't going to be books for every reader, but given the affection with which this series is held, I'm really relieved to have finally found one that I could finish, and did enjoy.
NIGERIANS IN SPACE - Deji Olukotun
"It's time to end the brain drain and move to brain gain. It's time for a great mind of Nigeria to return home. You're the mind we need, Doctor."
1993. Houston. A lunar rock geologist gets an outlandish request: steal a piece of the moon. Dr. Wale Olufunmi has a life most Nigerian immigrants would kill for, but then most Nigerians aren't Wale-a great scientific mind in exile with galactic ambitions. With both personal and national glory at stake, Wale manages to pull off the near impossible, setting out on a journey back to Nigeria that leads anywhere but home.
When I said yes to a review copy of NIGERIANS IN SPACE, I will admit that it was partly the title. The opening line of the blurb didn't hurt either. Starting to read it, from about chapter 2 I was totally bamboozled, and firmly hooked. (Although I was mildly disappointed that the piece of the moon stolen was pilfered from a laboratory ... for a while I hoped....)
With a story that quickly moves from the early 90's to the present, this is a very smooth, slightly mad debut novel which bodes particularly well for future outings.
It could be that part of the story that really works is the idea that there would be a government official orchestrating a brain gain back to Nigeria. A call to arms for Nigerian scientists the world over. Return, use your knowledge and help the land of your birth become the rising technological power of Africa. There's just the minor inconvenience of a little pinched material as your "entrance fee" for want of a better description.
It's hard not to get well into this whole story without the words "Nigerian Scam" rolling in front of your eyes. And it is a very delicious idea, that the ultimate Nigerian Scam might actually be perpetrated by Bello, the Nigerian government official on some of the great Nigerian brains of our time. Especially as the ultimate plan seems to fall to pieces very quickly and the main character - lunar rock geologist Olufunmi, finds himself stranded, with family and a rapidly disappearing brain gain dream.
But the story is not just about Olufunmi. There's also amiable Thursday, who goes from abalone breeder to poacher, and Melissa another victim of Bello. All three storylines do eventually converge in a resolution steeped in African sensibility.
The action moves around a lot in this book, although once it hits South Africa it settles and whilst there is a strong sense of place, it's also the strong cultural setting and feel that really make this an interesting read. Slightly mad definitely, but good mad. In fact it was fascinating all round. Even if the first few chapters might have you wondering what on earth..