3 star

The Breakdown – B A Paris

Title – The Breakdown

Author – B A Paris

Published – Feb 2017

Genre – Psychological thriller

With a set of bookshelves that are just my ‘to read’ books it can be difficult choosing the next book to read, in this case I went for a book that Goodreads told me was in the running for their annual Goodreads Choice Awards in the ‘Mystery and Thrillers’ category.

On a stormy night Cass takes a shortcut home through the woods and drives past a woman parked in her car. When the news the next day is that the woman has been found dead and she also realises that she knew the woman, Cass becomes consumed by guilt.

I wasn’t hugely keen on Cass as a character. She’s suffering from memory lapses and is worried that she, like her mother before her, is suffering from early onset dementia, but her initial decision not to tell her husband what happened felt like a frustrating mistake when you’re looking in from the outside. I know authors play with ‘what if’ scenarios but as a reader I’m not keen on the plots that rely on the main character making the wrong choice at the beginning (usually keeping a secret) on which the rest of the plot depends. Despite my misgivings I couldn’t fault the writer in creating a character who felt fragile, fractured and brought to close to breaking point.

As with The Roanoke Girls it would be very easy to compare this to (in this case) a single film/play which would give away the main premise (I won’t). As it was I felt the author was trying to keep the suspense going until close to the end of the book when I had realised some (admittedly not all) of the key elements much earlier on.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.



Playing With Death – Simon Scarrow and Lee Francis

Title – Playing With Death

Author – Simon Scarrow and Lee Francis

Published – July 2017

Genre – Thriller

I was in the mood for an American thriller or police procedural and I was lucky to find this in my TBR but surprised to find it was a Simon Scarrow book I was choosing.

The main character is FBI Agent Rose Blake, after an undercover mission to catch a notorious serial killer fails she is assigned to investigate a suspicious arson attack and death. The investigation quickly picks up a link to a new technology product, high tech companies and a virtual world.

An FBI ‘technothriller’ by Simon Scarrow was a surprise, I really enjoy Scarrow’s Roman Macro and Cato series and his Wellington and Napoleon series, so this felt like a real departure. The book is credited to both Scarrow and Lee Francis and I couldn’t say how the input was divided and what each of the authors brought, the writing style was quite different to Scarrow’s books but the environment here was technological rather than historical. It’s also in the present tense which made it feel more ‘immediate’ but as this is an unusual choice it also feels slightly jarring to read.

I was really in two minds about this book. It was engaging and had lots of pace but some of the technology aspects made it feel like an ill thought out version of a Michael Crichton thriller. I liked Rose but I think that if you didn’t know the gender of the author most people would guess the character was written by a man which is a shame. The book is thought-provoking in terms of the development of technology and social media but the specific issue at the core (and I’m being cryptic here to avoid spoilers) meant it missed the mark for me.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.


The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Title – The Long Drop

Author – Denise Mina

Published – March 2017

Genre – Historical crime

I’ve read a couple of books in succession which have made me feel inadequate as a reader and The Long Drop is one of them. Last month it won ‘The McIlvanney Prize’ which is Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year. It beat shortlisted books which included MurderabiliaThe Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid and Out of Bounds and I just can’t understand why this was the book to come out on top. So am I missing something?

I hadn’t realised when I started reading that the book was based on real events – the case of Peter Manuel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Manuel (don’t read the article before reading the book) who was a notorious serial killer in the 1950s. The story is a fictionalised version of the case and tells in parallel both the events of the night of 2 December 1957 when Manuel went on a pub crawl with William Watt, alongside the story of Manuel’s trial for multiple murders. I was intrigued by the story but had I known anything in advance about the true crime aspect it might have taken away some of the mystery. It is, however, a very evocative story which really brought alive the dark side of Glasgow in the 1950s.

What I found quite odd, and jarring, was that even given the constraints of the two parts of the story the author went both backwards and, more puzzlingly, forwards in time. For example, referencing the future implementation of the Clean Air Act or how developments will prompt the eventual action of specific characters – all outside the timeframe of the story. This seemed like an odd approach but perhaps it’s this unusual style that made the book stand out for others.

During the trial there are intricate portraits of the cast of (mostly) disreputable characters that are called to appear but some of the courtroom details – the ins and outs of the origins of two guns – felt unnecessary and slowed the pace. I was also interested in the suggestion that Manuel couldn’t read people in the same way as most of us and he certainly exhibited some bizarre behaviour,  perhaps a suggestion of mental health issues at the root of his actions?

This wasn’t a book I enjoyed but as it is an award winner I feel that the shortcomings must be on my side. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.


Hidden Bodies – Caroline Kepnes

Title – Hidden Bodies51pgbojyk2l

Author – Caroline Kepnes

Published – 2016

Genre – Psychological thriller

This is the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes – a book that I couldn’t stop raving about. I was thrilled to hear that we hadn’t seen the last of Joe and I was very much looking forward to Hidden Bodies.

So the question is – did it deliver? Sadly the answer is that I don’t think it did. In Hidden Bodies Joe has met a new woman and is putting the past behind him – except for one little issue that he left behind in a wardrobe. But when the tables are turned on him he heads for Los Angeles with plans to exact his revenge. Along the way he loses his purpose and becomes involved with a fantastically rich film-making pair of twins. Kepnes stretches the reader’s credulity with his exploits in the film world, nevertheless the bodies continue to pile up.

This lacked the intensity of its predecessor as well as much of the tension. I also didn’t find Joe’s behaviour consistent with the character I remembered from You. It’s obviously not inconceivable that his experiences have changed him but I don’t believe that’s the case, Joe was pretty entrenched in his views and behaviour. I also struggled with some of the cultural references, it was easier to follow the more literary ones in the first book than the ones in this sequel. Where the first book gave Joe’s quirky and skewed view of the world this felt more a piece about the excesses and superficial nature of the film industry and I’m not sure that New Yorker Joe was the right character to explore it. The pace also left a lot to be desired. Where You flew along this really seemed to drag and my attention wavered but perhaps this was a combination of the factors I’ve already mentioned…

This didn’t deliver the impact of Kepnes’ debut and wasn’t the twisted, stalker Joe that I wanted to read about.


Skinner’s Round – Quintin Jardine

51anj4bskulTitle – Skinner’s Round

Author – Quintin Jardine

Published – 1995

Genre – Crime fiction

The may be the longest I’ve taken to read a book (even longer than The Draining Lake), according to Goodreads I started this in January 2011! The delay isn’t all mine, or even the author’s but when I got halfway through I found that there was a section of pages repeated in place of the correct ones. This is number 4 of a series of (currently at 27 titles) so a replacement wasn’t easy to get hold of.

This isn’t the only reason though – I don’t understand golf, and the ’round’ in question isn’t one in a pub but one on a golf course. A body is discovered at the Witches’ Hill Golf and Country Club on the eve of a prestigious invitation golf match to mark its opening. The police investigation carries on through the duration of the match until it reaches its climax in the final round. But sadly all the references to golf and the description of the action as the different characters played a number of games were lost on me. Which contributed to the length of time it took me to read.

After the first body is discovered a letter to a local newspaper links the death to a local curse. This part of the investigation was much more interesting. A tape recording is discovered of a young  girl talking about the curse to none other than Skinner’s late wife. His colleagues believe that the reference to the curse is critical to solving the case and that leads them to find out more about the origin of the curse in the 1600s.

This book very much fits in the mould that I’ve come to expect from the series with a mix of police procedural and family life. Skinner is an unusual character because although he has the dead wife common to many lead police protagonists he does have a very happy and stable family life. Writing the character to be more of a physical character would probably stretch the credibility of an East Lothian Assistant Chief Constable but he does possess a steely resolve and isn’t a man to be crossed.

I enjoyed the next instalment in the ‘Skinner’ books but sadly the golf aspect wasn’t for me.


20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill

51pbfcgwtplTitle – 20th Century Ghosts

Author – Joe Hill

Published – 2005

Genre – Horror

This is is a short story collection and is the first of Joe Hill’s work that I’ve read, despite having seen him on his book tour for The Fireman.

One of the real highlights of the collection is the variety of the stories and the distinctiveness of the different voices. The stories make an interesting  combination,  some like ‘Best New Horror’ are a very conventional approach to horror where others have more of a fantasy feel to them. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) many of the stories have a more poignant and touching aspect to them, and there seems to be a thread running through a number of stories featuring children and childhood.

I particularly enjoyed ‘Pop Art’ which was both funny and moving. ‘Art’ is Arthur Ross, an inflatable Jewish boy. The narrator has a difficult home life with an unpleasant father and Art’s family provides a stark contrast, but Art is inflatable. The author has thought through the disadvantages of being inflatable, for example unable to speak Art has to write his thoughts on a pad, but of course this must be in crayon as a sharpened pencil could be deadly… The story is about the relationship between the two boys but inevitably being inflatable is Art’s defining characteristic.

The last story in the collection, ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a chilling horror without any gore or shocks, but nonetheless gripping and was probably the highlight for me. Was this the author saving the best until last? The story is narrated by Nolan but is about his younger brother Morris, a little boy diagnosed with some mental health problems. But that’s not what makes Morris different. Morris likes to construct things, starting with paper cups he moves on to cardboard boxes, the designs becoming ever more elaborate and complex, but the structures have a sinister side.

On the other hand there were some stories that I just didn’t get. I’m not a reader that likes to be confused  – I like clear resolution and explanation, a direct take on the genre, so more ambiguous stories like ‘My Father’s Mask’ just left me puzzled with more questions than answers.

Collections of short stories make a welcome break from novels and although they don’t make for the same sort of escapism there’s a lot to be said for being able to distill a piece of prose into the length of a train journey. This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me though.


The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.