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Sunday Morning Coming Down – Nicci French

Title – Sunday Morning Coming Down

Author – Nicci French

Published – July 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the seventh in the series of eight books in the Frieda Klein series and a review that I feel particularly guilty about. I made a bit of a fuss to get the review copy of the book as I so wanted to make sure I read and reviewed the whole series and then look – my review is about a year late! What can I say except sorry…?

If there is one thing we’ve learned about Frieda it’s how much she values the sanctuary of her home, so when a body is discovered under the floor it’s a clear, unequivocal message. Perhaps more significantly it’s the tipping point for Frieda as there is general acceptance that Dean Reeve is still alive – an important moment for her.

The main driver of the book is that it isn’t Freida who is coming under attack – it’s her friends and family. But is it Reeve who is behind the onslaught or is it a copycat? The multiple potential targets adds pace (where did all these friends come from!?) and tension. This is also an opportunity to find out more about each of them.

Frieda does dip her toe back into her psychotherapy, but the sessions have become secondary to her investigations.

It’s impossible not to have in the back of your mind, as you read this book, that this is the penultimate in the series. So without reading a word it’s easy to be pretty sure that both Frieda is going to survive to make book #8. Is that a spoiler? No – just common sense. It’s not unusual that within crime fiction the characters ‘go on a journey’ it’s just more overt here. The climax of book 1 will be, I imagine, book 8 – the pleasure is the way the story unfolds, the journey.

This is too close to the end of the series to consider reading this as a standalone, the story is interesting enough but you would be missing so much. I would recommend beginning with Blue Monday. But roll on number eight!

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy.
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The Story Keeper – Anna Mazzola

Title – The Story Keeper

Author – Anna Mazzola

Published – 28 July 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

It’s been a long wait since Anna’s excellent debut ‘The Unseeing’ was published and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been looking forward to reading her second novel. Before I go any further I should say that it doesn’t disappoint!

Set on the Isle of Skye the book opens with the arrival of Audrey, running away from her family and an event which, at least in the early part of the book, is only hinted at, she is set to take up a post collecting folklore. She hopes that a return to Skye, which she remembers vaguely from  some time in her childhood spent in the area, is a way to recapture a connection to her mother, who died when Audrey was ten. Her new employer is the imperious Miss Buchanan, she is to stay with Miss Buchanan and her nephew in their family estate – the neglected and brooding Lanerly Hall.  Audrey isn’t feeling particularly confident about her ability to do the job she’s been employed for but she’s burned her bridges. And then she discovers the body of a young woman on the shore by the Hall.

While making some efforts to collect stories from the crofters Audrey asks tentative questions about the dead girl. The answers are a mix of superstition based around the folktales and more ‘earthly’ explanations. Her discovery of another girl’s disappearance only deepens the mystery. But as events play out Audrey becomes more isolated and weakened by the toll her involvement takes on her.

There is a social history aspect to the book, communities ravaged by the land owners and struggling, protective of their heritage and suspicious of outsiders. The factual background to the events which took place are probably not well known by most people and it’s always a positive to learn something from a work of fiction, especially when it’s done seamlessly, without the reader feeling that they’re being given lots of information. The folklore offers an interesting insight – does it develop as an explanation for the things which have no rational explanation; do the stories represent the truth or a warning?

I’ve read a number of historical fiction books recently which have this type of gothic feel to them but this one hits the mark in creating the dark and claustrophobic atmosphere with a set of compelling characters. There is a real sense of menace pervading this book and despite the July publication date it would be perfect for curling up on a dark night in front of a log fire.

I’ve seen comparisons to the excellent Burial Rites but for me it was similar to Burial Rites crossed with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like Burial Rites the location is hugely important – rugged coastline, isolated communities, brutal weather. Audrey stands up as the heroine of the piece – conflicted,  isolated, trying not to be defined by her past but at a time when women weren’t expected to act on their own. She has an inbuilt sense of justice but acting on it isn’t always the best course of action.

The story develops into multiple threads and there were some surprises in the way it plays out and the directions it takes. It’s unusual for a debut author not to be embarking on a series but other than the dark subjects and the compelling writing it was quite different to The Unseeing although equally enjoyable (in a dark and moody way). Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Animal Instinct – Simon Booker

Title – Animal Instinct

Author – Simon Booker

Published – April 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

I decided to make a list of the books I’ve read but need to review and it came out at a depressing twenty plus, so I need to make an effort to catch up and that means shorter reviews but more progress (hopefully). First up is Animal Instinct by Simon Booker (author of the Morgan Vine series). This has been published as an ebook and an Audible audio book.

Joe Cassidy is an ex-policeman trying to get his life onto something of an even keel after the resolution of disturbing case, the details of which are only hinted at. If you’ve read Kill Me Twice you may remember Cassidy – he was a minor character living in his shack on the Dungeness beach. When the daughter of a childhood friend goes missing Cassidy is asked to help find her. But not only is Cassidy off the police force he has also separated from his wife and she’s leading the police investigation into the disappearance.

Cassidy’s friend is the owner of a zoo which was where Bella was working when she disappeared and the place is the original source of the two men’s friendship. When Bella’s body is discovered the police view her father as a suspect and he wants Cassidy to maintain his involvement in an effort to track down the real killer.

This is a book of two halves. In the first there is the investigation into Bella’s death, albeit complicated by Cassidy’s relationship with his wife and her involvement in the official investigation and the fact that his son is hiding something that may be related to the murder. He’s also both helped and hindered by a journalist who is trying to get a scoop on the story. The second half sees the implosion of the family in the wake of the murder and ramifications that could rival a Greek tragedy.

For all the crime fiction I’ve read (and it’s a fair amount) this is the first book I can recall that had a zoo / wildlife park setting and dealt with issues such as animal rights and the sort of fanatics that can be attracted to this sort of cause.

I enjoyed the book, it was compelling and well-plotted, even if the climax pushed the bounds of credibility it did make me go ‘blimey’ (or words to that effect) as I was reading. I hope that a series develops for Cassidy – there’s unfinished business that I’d like to find out the resolution to.

Thank you to the publisher for the Netgalley.

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The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

Title – The Feed

Author – Nick Clark Windo

Published – Jan 2018

Genre – Fiction

This is another debut that I picked up at the Headline ‘New Voices 2018’ event I attended in January. I have to say that the description of the book didn’t do it justice – it packs a whole lot in and it’s difficult to know where to start with a review. The book is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, speculative, thriller with a range of themes from technology to identity.

We’re introduced to a future where technology has been extrapolated to a believable conclusion. The Feed is social media to the max – it’s in your head and it goes beyond sharing news and information but it’s also thoughts and memories. For most people it’s impossible to be without it – it’s the way everyone communicates and it’s a hundred times more addictive than social media is now.

And then a cataclysmic event ends The Feed. Six years or so on and Kate and her husband Tom are about to celebrate the birthday of Bea, their daughter. The world has changed and we’re now in territory familiar to readers of Station Eleven or viewers of The Walking Dead. Without The Feed civilisation has collapsed – no-one knew how to do anything without it, all the knowledge was stored digitally, they don’t know how to cook a meal or grow crops.  Some people were so addicted to The Feed that its loss lead to their death – corpses littering the towns and cities and the infrastructure of society has failed.

So that’s the setting and a story of survival could have been enough – but there are two more key aspects to the book. The first is that you have to have someone watch you sleep as you could be ‘Taken’ and if this does happen you need your watcher to act. But what does being Taken mean, what is it that happens to people…? And the other driver for the story is the loss of Bea – she goes missing and Tom and Kate have to embark on a search for her, leaving the safe haven they’ve established. As the story unfolds and Tom and Kate search for Bea the gaps are filled in and the reader learns more about what caused The Feed to collapse.

But there is even more to the book than this and I don’t want to give too much away. The main crux of the story seems to be a warning of the dangers to relying too much on technology, the importance of family and the lengths people will go to to survive.

There is a lot going on which means this isn’t necessarily an easy read. It’s definitely thought provoking and disturbing and it kept me guessing. As I said it’s not a genre I often read so my perception of the book will no doubt be different to those who read more sci-fi / dystopian fiction than I do. Although quite dark, without some of the lighter moments of Station Eleven, I’m not sure that it really delivered on horror or tension, I think there was room to push both a little further than they went. I didn’t find Kate or Tom to be particularly likeable, they have flaws which outweigh the more positive aspects of their characters but I don’t think that necessarily detracted from the book. It’s not a story I’ll forget in a hurry!

If you need any encouragement to put your phone down and step away from social media then The Feed should do the job! Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Between the Crosses – Matthew Frank

Title – Between the Crosses

Author – Matthew Frank

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s difficult to believe that it’s four years since I reviewed Matthew Frank’s debut ‘If I Should Die‘ or that I’ve left it so long before reading the sequel.

Stark is now a fully fledged DC and, along with DS Millhaven, attends the scene of the murder of a wealthy husband and wife; they have been shot in their own home and there may have been a burglary. There are pressures on the investigative team due to financial cuts, they are close to breaking point and that’s before they lose a member of the team. The temporary solution is the return of an unpopular character who upsets the team dynamic, often with Stark paying the price.

As with the first book the crime and the investigation involve a limited number of characters and take place over a small geographic area. The investigative aspects are those of a proper police procedural – interviewing suspects, results of post-mortems, but without lots of unnecessary technical detail. Despite this the plot is not a simple one and kept me guessing.

Although Stark has made progress since his first appearance he’s still plagued by nightmares and self-doubt. There’s a lot of internal monologue which gives the reader some insight into his personality but his colleagues still see him as something of an enigma who it’s difficult to figure out. Stark’s background is fleshed out a little more with some of his experiences when he was a soldier and he still has some duties to perform and connections in the army that he can press for favours. This move from TA soldier (and hero) to DC really does add a compelling aspect to the series.

One thing that I particularly appreciated was Frank’s ability to leave chapters on a cliff-hanger. Perhaps he’s a fan of James Patterson…? Anyway – it does make you press on with the book even when you know you have other things you should be doing.  The pace is well balanced with slower aspects of the investigation and Stark’s life being matched by some faster paced action scenes, all rounded off by a hugely exciting climax.

Stark is a great character and I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction that is character-led but this series is a pleasure to read. If you’re not familiar with the series I can thoroughly recommend it – and start with the first book because that way you’ll be able to follow Stark’s journey.

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The Burning Soul – John Connolly

Title – The Burning Soul

Author – John Connolly

Published – 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s been a while since I’ve caught up on John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series but as I went to the First Monday event where he was on the panel I thought it must be time to pick the series up again.

If I’m honest part of the reason I’d delayed was that I found the previous book in the series (The Whisperers) quite a struggle. However, I’m pleased to say that this felt like a return to form and I raced though the book.

A teenage girl has gone missing in a small town on the coast of Maine, however it’s not her disappearance that is the reason for Charlie’s involvement but a man with a mysterious past who is being tormented by anonymous messages through the post. Randall Haight’s secret is that he killed a young girl when he was only a teenager himself – he’s worried that his past will come out and he may be high on the list of suspects for the recent disappearance. He wants Charlie’s help to protect his quiet, unremarkable life. But Charlie’s not taken with him and he thinks there’s more to his story.

The family of the missing girl has its own secrets and these lead to a thread in the book which takes the story, initially, to the mob in Boston and the fight by a fading mobster to hold on to his position. Once Charlie gets wind of the connection to the missing girl he has another mystery to unravel.

This was a book that was light on the supernatural aspects that readers of the series will be familiar with. In fact the story would have worked just as well without them, but they’re part of Charlie and his story now. It was also a little light on Louis and Angel’s involvement, there was room to have them a bit more central to the story. In fact, in some ways, because the part of the story following the mobsters took away time from Charlie, I’d have enjoyed the book a bit more if the author had let him have a bit of down time.

This was just what I expect from the series – a mystery with a likeable PI to resolve it, a hint of the supernatural, a dark sense of humour and some really bad people!

 

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Star of the North – D B John

Title – Star of the North

Author – D. B. John

Published – 10 May 2018

Genre – Thriller

I’m not sure that in a bookshop, poised to part with a few pounds, I might have chosen a thriller set in North Korea, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book – blogging does broaden your horizons!

Set in 2010 the book follows the fortunes of three main characters.

In the US, Jenna Williams, of mixed race (Korean / African-American), is still struggling with the disappearance of her twin sister from South Korea 12 years previously, when she is approached to join the CIA.

In North Korea an elderly peasant woman who has been consigned to a penal colony makes a chance discovery while foraging for food, spurred into action she takes her first steps to escape from the poverty she and her husband have been trapped in.

Finally, also in North Korea, there’s Cho Sang-ho, a rising star in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the higher you rise the greater the risk…

This book was fascinating on two counts. Firstly it offers an insight into the lives of those living under the North Korean regime – the ‘cult of personality’, the contrast between the lives of the poor majority and the wealth of the leader, as well as some of the macro political issues that face the countries trying to negotiate with the increase in nuclear threat. Although set a few years ago these are issues that seem particularly relevant at the moment. For all the aspects of the book that seem to stretch the reader’s credulity there are some enlightening examples in the Author’s Note at the end of the book which make you think that truth can be stranger than fiction.

It’s also a cracking thriller with the threads of the story converging to provide some tense as well as fast-paced sequences, some surprising twists all balanced by scenes where you learn more about the characters and their backstory. I liked all of the characters, although how much North Koreans might really come to question the “Dear Leader’s” wisdom it’s probably impossible to say. One thing that would have helped my understanding of the story would have been a map of the locations.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. A fascinating setting for a thriller.

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