5 star

A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

Title – A House of Ghosts

Author – W. C. Ryan

Published – 4 October 2018

Genre – Historical thriller / supernatural

This is not just an excellent read but is a beautiful book to own. I read the netgalley which means that my hardback copy, with its gold embossed cover, map and illustrated chapter headings, can stay in pristine condition!

The starting premise of the book is terrific. It’s the winter of 1917 and on a tiny island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering in an attempt to contact his two sons who have already been lost in the war. He has a very specific guest list and this attracts the attention of military intelligence who ensure that included in the invitations are a number of people in their employ. As the guests gather a storm descends on the island, cutting off the route back to the mainland.

So we have a house party on an island, a raging storm, spies, ghosts, and guests with secrets. Excellent! The setting is Agatha Christie-esque but deals with much more serious issues than she would have tackled in her books. Some of the guests have profited from the war and commercial decisions aren’t always the same as ethical ones, people’s actions have had unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if there has been an increase in the books which have a ghostly or supernatural slant to them or I just happen to have read more recently but what sets this book apart is its unambiguous approach to spirits, an approach I really liked, although this does mean they don’t necessarily add to the suspense with the story.

There is a strong cast of characters and everyone adds something to the story. The main characters are Kate Cartwright, a bright, young woman with her own connection to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, a veteran of the war and with plenty in his own past that he would prefer no-one knew about. There is a hint of chemistry between them but the relationship that unfolds is very within keeping for the period setting. One common trait in Ryan’s writings is the ‘reserved hero’, in the Korolev series and The Constant Soldier this is more due to the necessity of the situation but while that is to some extent true in this book it also reflects the etiquette of the time.

The book is neatly plotted with many layers and although the elements may make it sound like it’s all about the action there are some serious themes at the heart of it, including the treatment of those who have served at the front and returned. The writing had a very visual quality and by the end I felt as if I might have seen a film rather than read a book, my recall of the scenes being very vivid. An excellent read for dark winter nights.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.

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The Savage Shore – David Hewson

Title – The Savage Shore

Author – David Hewson

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, a continuation of the Nic Costa series which saw the last book (Fallen Angel) published in 2011. I had been enjoying the series and worried that we’d heard the last of Costa and his colleagues, so I was thrilled to hear that another book was coming.

The team that you would be familiar with if you’ve read the earlier books are in Calabria, in the south of Italy and far away from their comfort zone. They are there to try to arrange the extraction of the elusive head of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia, who is also offering up the overlord of the Costa Nostra – the most wanted man in Italy. The assignment is cloaked in secrecy, including the reason behind the man’s approach to the police and his intention to turn state’s witness. The high-stakes and sparse information don’t make this a comfortable assignment.

Costa is required to go undercover with the man’s family and must prove himself in a number of ways before he will be accepted by those in the ’Ndrangheta. This offers a few thrills and is a test of Costa’s metal. Once he has been accepted the story twists and turns as the opportunity comes for the authorities to make their move.

While Costa has the main part of the story there is an interesting aside for Peroni, who strikes up a friendship with a young widow running a small waterfront cafe. It seems that organised crime affects every one in the community and true to character Peroni risks the group’s cover to step in.

Background to the history of the location and the ’Ndrangheta is provided by extracts from the fictional ‘Calabrian Tales’ which weaves its own set of myths and legends alongside the rise of the Bergamotti family, their traditions and their values.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series of books and Costa has been an interesting character to follow as he has developed. He takes his role-play a little too seriously and there are some thought-provoking incidents while he is undercover and towards the end of the story.

I really enjoyed the mix of thriller/mystery, the unusual location and the historical aspects to the story, and I thought these worked well using the extracts of text rather than having a character ‘telling’ lots of information. The place and people offer a glimpse of a way of life that’s long gone for most people and the vivid writing easily conjures up this new location. There are even a few meals thrown in for good measure (not quite to the level of Camilleri, but mouth-watering nevertheless).  And it’s always good when a book you’ve been looking forward to delivers.

Many thanks to the publisher for the Net Galley.

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Thirteen – Steve Cavanagh

Title – Thirteen

Author – Steve Cavanagh

Published – January 2018

Genre –  Legal / Thriller

If you haven’t heard of this book you’ve probably not been on social media this year – not only has there been a concerted campaign to promote the book but I’ve yet to hear a bad word about it. The book is the fourth in the ‘Eddie Flynn’ series and despite not having been a huge fan of Cavanagh’s debut I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Things have moved on for Flynn since the end of the first book, but not so much that I felt I didn’t know what was going on. He’s representing small-time clients, sleeping in his office and outsmarting the wrong people. Out of the blue he’s approached by a high-flying lawyer who wants Flynn to join him on a case representing a young Hollywood star, Bobby Solomon, accused of murdering his wife and chief of security. Initially reluctant to become involved Flynn is persuaded that the case isn’t as open and shut as it appears and his meeting with Bobby clinches the deal.

There are two points of view in the story – one is Flynn (in the first person) and the other is a mysterious character (third person) called Kane who is on a no-holds-barred quest that will see his involvement in the courtroom. Swapping between the points of view and knowing what’s happening (without perhaps understanding the purpose) is a great way of making the book compelling – you really want to keep reading to see how things will fit together.

I’m purposely trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that would be better enjoyed letting it unfold as you read. There are some particularly devious moments and afterwards you do have to wonder how the author came up with them! Flynn remains a likeable character who takes his fair share of knocks – both physical and emotional – but has a decent moral compass. Kane on the other hand, despite being a monster, is depicted as being completely rational, although what’s acceptable behaviour to him isn’t quite the same as it is for the rest of us…

The Defence isn’t the first debut I’ve read where the author tries to pack too much in (and I don’t suppose it will be the last) and you wonder what the author has left themselves with for the future but in Thirteen Cavanagh shows that he can maintain the reader’s interest with fewer threads to the story but really smart plotting of those that remain. I can certainly see shades of early Scott Turow in this book and it’s going to be one to look out for on future awards lists.

Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Day of the Dead – Nicci French

Title – Day of the Dead

Author – Nicci French

Published – 12 July 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

Well this is it, after seven years and seven books this is the much anticipated final instalment in the Frieda Klein series. Over the time that we’ve come to know Frieda we’ve watched the game of cat and mouse that has played out between her and her nemesis, but this is the climax of the story and it’s clear that only one of them will survive to the end.

The book opens with what appears to be a road accident and it’s quite a wait for the reader before the inevitable link to Dean Reeve and Frieda becomes clear. At the same time a young criminology student, Lola, is struggling to find a subject to write her dissertation on when her tutor suggests focussing on a person, on Frieda. Anyone who has read the preceding books in the series will know that she’s probably a bad choice – introverted, secretive, and in this book she’s in hiding.

By going into hiding Frieda is trying to save her friends and family but Lola, who is terribly out of her depth, manages to track her down and in doing so she threatens Frieda’s safety and those she’s trying to protect. Lola and Frieda are thrown together and this adds an interesting aspect to the story as Frieda steps back into her psychologist role. The book draws on some familiar themes from the series – Frieda’s love of walking, her knowledge of the rivers of London and Josef’s penchant for building work.

The tension really ramps up as Frieda tries to stay one step ahead of Dean Reeve. It adds a certain thrill to a book to know that it’s the final one in a series and that the author is free to do as they wish with the characters. The writing is, as ever, excellent and there are some twists and misdirection along the way which help to keep the reader guessing, brilliant pacing makes it compelling reading.

If there is one odd thing about this book it’s that the seven before have featured a growing and important cast of characters who have supported Frieda through the tough times but they feel a bit sidelined in this final episode. I don’t have an issue with the focus being Frieda, I was just struck by their relative absence when I’d finished.

I’m sure other readers will be able to think of some examples but for me it’s been unusual to read a series that has had a such a clear over-arching story arc that hasn’t wavered through the books. In fact this is, really, just one hell of a long book. Which makes book #8 equivalent to the final chapters – and as such the book is a fitting end. I know that the publisher is marketing this as being readable as a standalone thriller and I wouldn’t want to stop anyone reading it but you really should read the whole series.

What a series, what a climax. I’m going to miss Frieda.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy.
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Quieter than Killing – Sarah Hilary

Title – Quieter than Killing

Author – Sarah Hilary

Published – 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the fourth in the ‘Marnie Rome’ series and it’s a series that’s getting better and better.

Coinciding with ‘The Beast From The East’ (well, for me anyway) this is set in a grim and icy London. Marnie and Noah have been investigating what they believe to be vigilante attacks – several people who served prison sentences some years ago have been the subject of violent assaults. When the latest attack results in the death of the victim their efforts are redoubled but there is initially little evidence to go on. Investigating the victims and the original crimes opens up a whole host of further complications.

At the same time an incident at Marnie’s former childhood home blurs the boundaries between her work and personal life, and she is someone who likes to compartmentalise. DS Kennedy from ‘Trident’ is investigating the attack and believes that it’s linked to a local gang of kids. This also introduces a potential connection to her foster brother – someone who manages to insinuate himself into many of her investigations.

As the book progresses we meet another character – Finn, a young boy being held captive by ‘Brady’, with echoes of some of the aspects of the previous book in the series. It takes a while but eventually the connection to the investigations becomes clear and the role that Finn is playing is one that tugs at Marnie’s heart strings.

Noah has his own problems when he can’t find his younger brother, Sol, and he starts to receive threats – something that he should speak to DS Kennedy about but will he risk Sol being brought to the attention of colleagues? It makes it sound like there’s a lot going on but the book and the different threads don’t feel in any way disjointed.

The early parts of the book are a masterclass in how to give a reader new to your series enough information about the background and avoid an obvious device like a quick explanatory chat between two characters. Much of the book’s subject matter is centred around gangs and people bringing pressure to bear on others to act against their will; this type of social observation is typical of this series. What feels different about this book is the progress in the storyline between Marnie and her foster brother (although we’re left on a huge cliff hanger) and I wonder if the reason I didn’t love the earlier books as much as other people is connected to this thread. I’m a great one for having resolution in books! Although resolution appears to be some way off, the exchanges brought their relationship and the family dynamic into better focus. Marnie is also a great thinker – I’ve felt in the past that the character has spent too much time dwelling on issues and mulling them over – this book felt different, as if there was less angst.

Clever plotting, effortless writing and convincing characters – this is a great crime read with a social conscience.

Thank you to the library for lending me the copy. You can see another point of view on Cleo’s blog .

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The Photographer – Craig Robertson

Title – The Photographer

Author – Craig Robertson

Published – 25 Jan 2018

Genre – Crime

I don’t think it’s any secret that I am a fan of Craig Roberton’s writing due to his mix of gritty Glaswegian crime fiction, ability to weave in multiple plotlines and of course his very readable prose. This is the seventh book in the series featuring DI Rachel Narey and her partner, ex-police photographer Tony Winter and it’s made for a cracking start to the year.

In this case “The Photographer” isn’t Winter but a particularly violent rapist who has kept dozens and dozens of candid photographs of young women. Potentially his victims – of course, admissible in court and available to the police – of course not!

Unusually we start without much in the way of doubt about who the perpetrator is and he’s quickly brought to the attention of the police. Initially unaware of the scale of his crimes Narey’s trip to court draws a lot of public attention and this spills over into her family’s private life when she is the subject of a hate campaign via social media. Unsuccessful in the prosecution of the man, Narey becomes aware of more victims but discovering that some have disappeared gives the story a ‘race against time’ aspect. Winter receives some help from an unidentified source which allows him to pursue his own investigation and, as you would expect, he sails close to the wind.

This is less graphic than previous books but rape is a tricky subject regardless of who is writing about it. The attacks are described in enough detail that the reader can understand the terror of the women, and the violence of the assault, but there is nothing gratuitous. The  development of the victims’s characters offers an insight to the aftermath – those who crumble and those who rise above it to become more of a crusader for the rest.

It feels like it’s in this book that the author has really found the perfect balance with the series. The split of story between the two main characters (not forgetting Uncle Danny), the fact that their relationship is more settled, perhaps less violence, or at least less gore than previous books and a resolution that I was happy with – there’s nothing to criticise. As with the recent books in the series the topics are ‘cutting edge’ tackling issues you can see in the news any evening of the week. And one aspect that I must mention is Robertson’s turn of phrase – there are moments where it’s a pure joy to read, not something you can always say about crime fiction!

A great instalment in the series, many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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The Confession – John Grisham

Title – The Confession

Author – John Grisham

Published – 2010

Genre – Legal thriller

I’ve read a little less in 2017 than in recent years and there haven’t been any particular books that stood out as a ‘five star’ read but by the skin of its teeth this book gets that accolade. Apart from anything else it’s a book that’s haunting me – it’s a number of days since I finished it but I can’t shake off some of the aspects and issues that the book brought up.

Although written some years ago it feels like a particularly timely read and in fact the situation in the US may be worse now than it was when the book was published.

Donté Drumm is four days from execution in Texas for a murder he was found guilty of committing nine years earlier. On the Monday morning Travis Boyette, a serial rapist who is on parole, approaches a priest in a small town in Kansas confessing to the crime for which Donté is due to be executed. Reverend Keith Schroeder knows nothing of the case but when he researches it as quickly as he can he can see the obvious short-comings of the case against the young black boy accused of killing a white woman. Keith must decide what he will do and what he will risk – will he believe the man in front of him and attempt to stop the execution.

In Texas Donté’s passionate lawyer, Robbie Flak, is trying every last option that his team can put together to get a stay on the execution, no matter how unlikely the chances of success.

As the time scheduled for the execution approaches tension on the streets of Donté’s hometown increases as this becomes a clearly divided race issue.

The book offers tension at every turn – will the priest risk committing a crime and aide Boyette to cross the state line, will anyone be able to save Donté, will the tension in the town boil over. And as the present-day story unfolds the reader also finds out more about Donté and his arrest and subsequent confession as well as the damage to his sanity as he spends years on death row.

The book deals with two social issues – the first is the railroading of an innocent black man into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit and then the acceptance of this by those in authority over evidence that contradicts it. The other is the use of the death penalty and the possibility of making the most unthinkable error.

It also touches on grief, I’ve been careful to avoid spoilers and this isn’t one, the family of the murdered young woman see the execution as their right and may not be willing to find that the years they’ve spent hating one person were mis-placed.

The characters are brilliantly well executed (if you’ll excuse the pun). The cautious priest, the zealous lawyer, the damaged young black man, the loathsome felon, the corrupt politicians – they call came to life on the page.

Grisham is known for his activism in trying to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners and this isn’t appealing to everyone. I’m not sure if there have been any changes in the application of the death penalty since the book was published but it’s a relief that it’s an issue we don’t have to contend with in the UK. Not a cheerful read but one that will make you think and a pacey, twisting thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.

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