review

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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Death in the Dordogne – Martin Walker

Title – Death in the Dordogne

Author – Martin Walker

Published – 2009

Genre – Crime fiction

I came to the Martin Walker / Bruno Chief of Police series at book 5 and have been curious to read the earlier books, so I took the opportunity of an offer with the Book People to buy books 1 – 3. There are quite a few references to a number of preceding events in the later books and I wanted to better understand some of the background. The problem I found, however, is that while the first book provides a lot of background it does it by ‘telling’ rather than  ‘showing’.

There are two main investigative threads to Death in the Dordogne – one is the the death of an elderly man, head of an immigrant North African family, and decorated former soldier. The other is the guerrilla tactics being used to deter EU hygiene inspectors, Brussels bureaucrats, who want to interfere with the traditional ways of the local market traders. It may have been published in 2009 but the issues that crop up – mistrust of Brussels, distrust of foreigners, the rise of the far right feel very current.

The pace is quite slow, which isn’t unusual for the series, there are the gastronomic delights that are a feature of the series and the ‘aspirational’ feel – who wouldn’t want to live Bruno’s life in St Denis? The main mystery is relatively simple and the resolution is one that demonstrates the ‘just’ side of Bruno, a man with a clear moral compass. The story also taught me some aspects of French history that I wasn’t aware of.

It’s an interesting perspective to go back to the beginning of a series because the first thing I wondered was ‘why start here?’. What was it about book one that marked the start? I think it’s the fact that although Bruno has been in his post for some time this is the point at which he has to deal with his first murder (after this there is a real increase in the number of deaths in the area…). The investigation demands that external resources are brought in so this is also the point where he meets Isabelle for the first time.

I have to say that if this was the first book I had read I might not have pressed on with the series. Whether as a conscious effort or not, the later books feel like the author gets better at filling in the backstory the reader needs to know without it being such an obstacle to the pace.

The book serves well as an introduction but the series is one that definitely gets better.

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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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