3 star

Fault Lines – Doug Johnstone

816HGaMoWLLTitle – Fault Lines

Author – Doug Johnstone

Published – 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while and if I’m honest I was slightly put off by the blurb. While I do read speculative fiction books they’re definitely the exception rather than the rule and it was the ‘reimagined contemporary Edinburgh’ that caused the delay in my starting. In fact I needn’t have delayed, the premise concerns the discovery of a man’s body on a volcanic island in the Firth of Forth, the reimagining having created a volcanic island, but in fact this is actually the only part of the book that is different to contemporary Edinburgh, in every other way this book’s world is ours.

The body is discovered by Surtesy, a PhD student, and the dead man, Tom, is her boss and her clandestine lover. In a decision she may come to regret she abandons the body and waits for someone else to make the discovery. In the meantime she receives a mysterious message from someone who knows something they shouldn’t.

The story is told from Surtesy’s point of view and her life wasn’t a particularly happy one before her lover’s death. She is sharing a house with her younger sister, who is something of a rebel, and her best friend from the university, and they seem to spend a lot of time drinking or taking drugs. They’re all living in the house that was Surtsey’s family home as her mother is in a hospice along the road.

As the discovery of Tom’s body opens up a police investigation aspects of Surtsey’s life come under the spotlight and she has to acknowledge the damage that her affair has done. At the same time she has to contend with her terminally ill mother with whom she has an uneasy relationship, then there is another death of someone close to her.

This is a book that just didn’t do it for me. I did find the ‘mysterious message’ aspect of the story gripping and it added an extra level of tension. I do think it could have a better sense of the place, I felt that the volcanic island could have been off any piece of coast and it wouldn’t have made too much difference to the story. I enjoyed the writing and was swept along with wanting to reach the end but I didn’t really like Surtsey too much, I was confused by the need for the volcanic island and I figured out the ‘whodunnit’ too soon.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Breakdown – Jonathan Kellerman

Title – Breakdown

Author – Jonathan Kellerman

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

In the past I used to receive some specific hardback books at Christmas which I would then devour over the next few days. Initially this was a Dick Francis and then it became a Jonathan Kellerman; habits change, as do publishing dates, so over the last few years this hasn’t happened. It also doesn’t seem as if I have the chance to read much during the day at Christmas any longer, but a spare pair of hands with puppy-sitting and a long-neglected Kellerman on my TBR and I seized the opportunity!

This is number 31 in the Alex Delaware series, a series that’s had its ups and downs, and I’d say that this was a ‘middling’ book. The main thread of the story is that five years previously consulting psychologist Alex Delaware evaluated the young son of a disturbed actress, Zelda Chase, as a favour for a colleague. The colleague has since died and when the actress is sectioned after some bizarre behaviour Delaware is called in because of his tenuous connection. He tries to help the young woman but Delaware is unable to find out from the woman, who has been living on the streets, what has happened to her son. This leads to a bit of an obsession as he tries to find the boy and even enlists Milo’s (LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis) help in trying to track him down.

The woman is released and Delaware and Sturgis sort out some accommodation for her but she still doesn’t offer any insight into what happened to her son. Then her body is discovered in the grounds of a grand estate in a prestigious area of LA. It  takes a while but eventually they have to give credence to Zelda’s belief in a dreadful event in her past.

The scene-setting at the beginning with the events when Delaware first encounters Zelda and her son are quite tedious but worth persevering with. After the death of Zelda the book takes on more of an investigatory feel with the focus on Zelda and her story – how she died, how she came to be homeless. Then more women go missing.

Less in the way of red herrings and twists than some books in the series, more Hollywood and acting than some. The relevant information which is important solving the case comes quite indirectly to the pair and that felt a bit frustrating. If the story was about Delaware’s search for Zelda’s son he seemed to forget that was his purpose sometimes and then that thread would get back on track. Oooh – and one inconsistency late on in the book that irritated me.

The pairing of Delaware and Sturgis works well, but then Kellerman has had a lot of time to develop the partnership. In fact thinking back to when the series was first published having a gay cop in Sturgis could well have been cutting edge. The pair bounce ideas off each other and discuss their theories, which helps to take the reader along with their train of thought.

Kellerman’s writing has a very specific feel and it’s like putting on a comfy pair of slippers for me but I know it’s not a style that appeals to everyone it’s an aspect that I really like, and for me it helps to bring the characters and situations to life. This was a book more about investigation that psychology, but no less enjoyable for that.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. Probably a 3.5 star rather than just a 3.

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The Trophy Child – Paula Daly

Title – The Trophy Child

Author – Paula Daly

Published – 2017

Genre – Psychological thriller

A book that’s full of characters that you love to hate. There is a complicated ‘blended’ family; husband and wife Noel and Karen with her son Ewan, Noel’s teenage daughter Verity and Brontë – their joint child. In a local nursing home is Noel’s first wife, Jennifer, trapped there because of her MS.

Where Brontë is concerned Karen is a ‘Tiger Mother’, determined to have perfection and avoid the disappointment she feels with her son. So Karen fills Brontë’s time with music lessons (the harp), Stagecoach (for self-confidence), extra tuition (maths) and she is pushing Brontë all of the time.

Then Brontë disappears and the family’s relationships come under the spotlight as Detective Sergeant Joanne Aspinall sets about trying to find the missing girl, even though she also has a connection to the family, something she fails to disclose.

These are people that you wouldn’t want to be your friends, and you definitely wouldn’t want to be Brontë. And I’m not a fan of books where the characters aren’t likeable. Verity feels like the hero of the piece although there is a mystery about her and something she has done which requires weekly drug tests at her school and trips to a psychotherapist. Nevertheless she seems to be the most normal person in the family. I also liked the character of Joanne although I’m not a fan of characters who are economical with the truth.

I enjoyed the crime aspects of the story but less so the dysfunctional family. It is a twisty tale which I’d be surprised if many readers could see where it was going but it also asks the reader to suspend their disbelief to a considerable extent.

You can read an interview with Paula Daly about her writing process here.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Title – Birdcage Walk

Author – Helen Dunmore

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

I loved Exposure so much that I treated myself to a copy of Birdcage Walk (admittedly when it came out in paperback rather than hardback). It’s made more difficult to review as Helen Dunmore died before the paperback publication of Birdcage Walk.

I was captivated and intrigued by the opening of the book. A middle-aged widower and his dog walk along Birdcage Walk and the dog discovers a hidden and somewhat ambiguous stone memorial. Intrigued the man eventually has the opportunity to quiz a local historian about the names on the stone. Stored in the archives are papers written by one of the people mentioned on the stone and these papers offer a fragment of information, with the documents dating back to the time of the French Revolution.

So far so good, the introduction was beautifully written and I was hooked. Then it all went downhill. The book moves to Bristol in 1789 and concerns the story of a family following the events of the French Revolution and their somewhat peripheral involvement in matters across The Channel.

Lizzie has been raised among radicals, her mother, Julia, who was widowed when Lizzie was an infant, is a fervent supporter of women’s rights, while her stepfather pens rousing republican pamphlets. Lizzie’s husband is a different kettle of fish, a practical man who lacks interest in idealism and who is more concerned about the impact of the upheaval on his business interests.

There is a mysterious burial and some skulduggery but I never really liked or connected with any of the characters and I found the story tedious. There were some odd parallels with The New Mrs Clifton  in terms of location, property development etc.

I persevered to the end but it felt like a chore. And the final disappointment for me was that the book wasn’t rounded off by the reappearance of the contemporary character with which it had opened.

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Dark Pines – Will Dean

Title – Dark Pines

Author – Will Dean

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This may be an unpopular point of view so I should say now that if you are one of the huge number of fans of Dark Pines and its hero Tuva then you probably won’t want read my review.

I bought this book for two main reasons, the first being that so many people on social media have raved about how good it is (I should know to manage my expectations better when this happens) and secondly I saw Will Dean on a panel at Crimefest and he was an engaging speaker and made his book sound like one I would enjoy.

Set in Sweden the premise is that a murdered body has been found deep in the snowy forest with its eyes removed – something that harks back to a series of unsolved murders some twenty years ago. Tuva is the (deaf) reporter for the Gavrik Posten, she’s recently moved to the small town from London in order to be closer to her seriously ill mother. For Tuva successful investigative reporting on the murder could be a step up the ladder for her and she drops the more mundane stories that are the usual content for the paper to spend her time investigating the murder.

The occupants of the small group of houses closest to the discovery of the body seem to be the natural suspects for the murder – and what a mixed bunch they are! Tuva concentrates her efforts on these few characters despite the fact that this means travelling into the forest – a struggle for her as she is terrified of nature.

As a character driven crime thriller I wasn’t too keen on Tuva. She is definitely different from other lead characters although she’s playing the recognisable role of an outsider coming into a close-knit community. One of the important distinctions about Tuva over protagonists in other books is that she’s deaf, which didn’t perhaps have as much impact on the story as I would have expected – I thought the author would have made more use of it in, for example, being able to lip read. The downside to the deafness was a seeming fixation in making sure that the reader didn’t forget and one of the few occasions where the deafness gave her an extra insight (the possible impact on a young boy of a noise others can’t hear) she did nothing.

The repetitive nature of the care of her hearing aids, the repetitive descriptions of driving up and down the same piece of road and some of the extraneous parts of the story that didn’t really seem to go anywhere, things that could have been red herrings but were never explained, all made me think this was more an attempt to write ‘literary’ crime fiction rather than ‘thrilling’ crime fiction. While I like my crime fiction to be well written I do want it to thrill!

Told in the first person the story was atmospheric and tense but there was also a lot of Tuva’s angst which I didn’t feel much sympathy for. She makes some poor choices that put her at greater risk than she needs to be and there a number of moments where, as a reader, I found her actions very frustrating. She’s been driven to live where she does, somewhere she doesn’t like, because of her intention to be on hand for her mother but when push comes to shove she puts her job first which felt like an inconsistency.

While this is an atmospheric thriller with the feel and pace of ‘nordic noir’ there were too many things I didn’t like about it and without spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it I think there is at least one plot hole that detracted from the story.

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Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Death of Kings

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2012

Genre – Historical Fiction

There isn’t much need for preamble to this review – I pressed straight on with this book after finishing The Burning Land. Feeling on a bit of a roll after getting caught up on the action in book 5 of The Saxon Stories I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

As you might guess from the title this is the book which sees the death of King Alfred, a moment which he and Uhtred have believed would be a catalyst for action by the factions looking to secure the throne for themselves.  However, the book is mostly about more political shenanigans, partly as the new King needs to find his feet and figure out which of his many advisors he should trust. The rise of Christianity has been a theme in the series but it feels as if this book may have seen the tipping point in its importance.

Uhtred is frustrated by King Edward’s reluctance to attack the Danes and puzzled by the Danes lack of attack. The lack of action was a bit frustrating for me as a reader too. There are some small skirmishes but it felt like a lot less happened in this book than in its predecessor. The main action is saved until the very end of the book in what is a great set piece with a real feeling of tension.

Not as fast-paced as its predecessor and pleasingly (for me) there was less attention to the memoir aspect of the story – less foreshadowing of future events by Uhtred.

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Underground Airlines – Ben H Winters

Title – Underground Airlines

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 2016

Genre – Alternative History

I know that there are a lot of bloggers who believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should just keep it to yourself and only share positive reviews. I’m not one of them. If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I am a huge fan of ‘The Last Policeman‘ trilogy by Ben H Winters so I was thrilled when I heard he had a new book being published and even treated myself to a signed, limited edition copy, but perhaps, for once, I should have waited to find out more about the book because I’ve come across alternative histories before that I’ve thought sounded interesting but were disappointing in their execution.

What if slavery had never been abolished? The story is set in the present time but in an America where slavery still exists, shaped differently as a result of the Civil War. The protagonist is ‘Victor’, a man who works undercover to track down escaped slaves, thwarting the efforts of the “underground airlines” who try to help these unfortunates escape to freedom. The rub here is that Victor is himself black (‘moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41’) and this isn’t a career he is pursuing of his own fee will.

Sent to Indianapolis to pursue ‘Jackdaw’, Victor is unsettled by a number of anomalies in the case he is being asked to investigate and equally disturbed by his unanticipated involvement with a young mother and her son. His undercover work and investigations contribute the thriller element to the book as the truth about Jackdaw and his escape point to larger forces at work.

I found the book incredibly slow, there was a lot of internal dialogue from Victor and a lack of pace. I also didn’t find Victor a particularly gripping character, within the story he is something of a chameleon and perhaps that didn’t help me to engage with him. If you compare him to Hank from The Last Policeman he was (literally) worlds apart. I appreciate that the subject is an incredibly serious one, so a lack of any sort of levity might be expected, but while the end of the world wasn’t exactly a laughing matter there was still humour to be found.

I appreciate that the issue is thorught-provoking but instead of raising deep questions about race and the risks of ignoring where we’ve come from and what we’ve learned, my thoughts were on a much more prosaic level about the practicalities of the world Winters had created. The book made reference to real historical characters (from world leaders to musicians) but that distracted me by wanting to know more of the ‘how did that happen?’ or ‘what about so-and-so?’.

Perhaps my disappointment in the book has as much to do with this being outside my usual genre as anything else. I’m not sure if that means I should read more widely so my expectations are better managed or stick more narrowly to what I know I like (and I have romance book to review that makes me think the latter may be the best option). Perhaps the subject matter, especially at the present time, feels too uncomfortable and the lessons too worthy to make it enjoyable fiction?

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