Thriller

The Last – Hanna Jameson

Title – The Last

Author – Hanna Jameson

Published – 31 January 2019

Genre – Dystopian thriller

I was a huge fan of Hanna Jameson’s debut – the dark crime thriller Something You Are; The Last is a departure in a number of ways but is no less thrilling. Set in a dystopian near future this is a contemporary thriller using the possibilities that a small leap in current events could create. This isn’t a genre that I read particularly often but the book called to mind both The Last Policeman series with its lead up to an apocalypse and Station Eleven which is set further post-apocalypse. The Last is somewhere between these, on the cusp of events as the realisation that the world is forever changed takes hold on a small group.

American professional historian Jon Keller is in a hotel in Switzerland, attending a convention, when the news breaks over breakfast that there has been a nuclear attack. Ever the professional Keller starts to record the events for posterity, or so that he can make amends with his wife who he left back in San Francisco.

A small group of survivors, a mixture of hotel staff and guests, remain at the hotel, the others having left despite the warnings that there is nothing outside for them. After the initial news reports the communications fail and the group needs to consider how they will survive. When they discover the body of a small child. Keller takes it upon himself to investigate

The hotel is enormous (thirteen floors and almost a thousand rooms) and set in an isolated location. Combine this with the very small group of survivors and this gives the setting a very eerie feeling. Needless to say that the pressure on the group  begins to take its toll as some seek to place blame for the events leading up to the nuclear strike, suspicion mounts over the identity of the killer and tempers flare as resources run low.

Although narrated in a straightforward way, as the days pass there is an element of backstory which fills in details of some of the events that took place once the news of the attack started to spread as well as an explanation of Keller’s relationship with his wife. He’s not a particularly likeable character and as he works his way around the group ‘interviewing’ them it doesn’t increase his popularity. He is also putting his own spin on the situation in the unlikely event that he should be able to give the diary to his wife.

The crime aspect is an interesting one as it gives the sense of a locked room murder and the investigation is one with limited methods at Keller’s disposal. The book is dark and doesn’t ignore the fate of those who decide that they can’t face the future. There are some interesting twists and turns to the plot and a sense that there was some sort of fate or destiny which placed the particular people in the group. I’m not going to say anything about the ending as I want to avoid spoilers but look forward to talking to other readers about it at some point!

A complex story mixing a crime story, with events which are catastrophic but plausible. A great read to start off the year. Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.

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The Evolution of Fear – Paul E Hardisty

816qpyYSM1LTitle – The Evolution of Fear

Author – Paul E Hardisty

Published – 2016

Genre –  Thriller

Claymore Straker is back and I regret that I left it so long before picking up this second book by Paul Hardisty. The story picks up just a few months from the end of The Abrupt Physics of Dying and starts off with an action sequence as a reminder of how thrilling Hardisty’s writing is.

Straker’s cover seems to be blown and he may have been betrayed by one of the few people he can trust. He flees his safe house on the coast of Cornwall in a thrilling sequence that will have you holding your breath.

When he recovers from his flight from England he tries to track down Rania, the woman he loves. Unable to speak to her, he follows a trail which leads him to Istanbul and although he finds her he quickly loses her again. A twist in the story see Straker separated from Rania and unsure if she still wants anything to do with him. While he tries to unravel the truth behind the story she has been working on (she is a journalist) he is still a fugitive with a considerable price on his head.

Having moved from the setting of Yemen and the environmental issues of the first book, there is a different issue at the heart of this book – the destruction of the habitats of sea turtles on Cyprus. But of course at the centre it’s still human greed and rival factions trying to make the most profit they can, ignoring the human or environmental cost.

Straker plays the male lead to the full, battered and bruised but ever resourceful. In this second book we find out more about the incident that drives him and for which he perpetually feels that he needs to make amends for. As with the first book Rania’s character is important as a driver for him but she’s not someone we really get to know.

As with its predecessor this wraps fast-paced action-packed writing around a heart which wants to see justice done, whatever the cost. Another thrilling read and I must now dig out the next book in the series! Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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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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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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Star of the North – read an extract from the book everyone’s talking about

Published on 10th May Star of the North is an incredibly timely thriller set in North Korea during 2010. I thought the 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 dealing with some of the larger macro political issues that face the countries trying to negotiate with the increase in nuclear threat.

I reviewed the book last month and you can read my full review here.

To whet your appetite the publishers have suppled the extract below where you can read an early encounter between Mrs Moon and the delights of the decadence found outside North Korea – and the risks associated with it.


Baekam County 

Ryanggang Province

North Korea

Mrs Moon was foraging for pine mushrooms when the balloon came down. She watched it glide between the trees and land on a fox-trail without a sound. Its body shimmered and the light shone straight through it, but she knew it wasn’t a spirit. When she got closer she saw that it was a deflating polythene cylinder about two meters in length, carrying a small plastic sack attached by strings. Strange, she thought, kneeling down with difficulty. And yet she had been half expecting something. For the past three nights there had been a comet in the sky to the west, though what it signified, good or ill, she could not decide. 

She listened to make sure she was alone. Nothing. Just the creaking of the forest and a turtle dove flapping suddenly upward. She slit open the plastic sack with her foraging knife, and felt inside. To her astonishment she pulled out two pairs of new warm woolen socks, then a small electric flashlight with a wind-up handle, then a packet of plastic lighters. And something else: a red carton with a picture of a chocolate cookie on the lid. Inside it were twelve cookies, sealed in garish red and white wrappers. She held one to the light and squinted. Choco Pie, she read, moving her lips. Made in South Korea. Mrs Moon turned to peer in the direction the balloon had come from. The wind had carried this thing all the way from the South? A few ri further and it would have landed in China! 

The sky to the east was bleeding red light through the treetops, but she could see no more balloons, just a formation of geese arriving for the winter. Now that was a good omen. The forest whispered and sighed, telling her it was time to leave. She looked at the Choco Pie in her hand. Unable to resist, she opened the wrapper and took a bite. Flavors of chocolate and marshmallow melted on her tongue.

Oh, my dear ancestors.

She clutched it to her chest. This was something valuable. 

Feeling flutters of excitement, she quickly put the items back into the sack and hid the sack in her basket beneath the firewood and fern bracken. Then she hobbled down the forest track, licking her lips. She’d reached the lane that ran along edge of the fields when she heard men shouting. 

Three figures were running across the fields in the direction of the forest—the farm director himself, followed by one of the ox drivers and a soldier with a rifle on his back. 

Goatshit. 

They had seen the balloon go down.

All day she worked the field in silence, uprooting corn stalks with the women of her work unit, moving along the furrows marked by red banners. Enemy balloons were seen in the sky at dawn, one of the women said. The army’s been shooting them down and the radio’s warning everyone not to touch them. 

A biting wind swept down from the mountains. The banners flapped. Mrs Moon’s back ached and her knees were killing her. She kept her basket close and said nothing. At the far edge of the field, she could see only one guard today, bored, smoking. She wondered if the others were searching for balloons.

When the watchtower sounded the siren at six she hurried home. The distant summit of Mount Paektu was turning crimson, its crags etched sharply against the evening sky, but the houses of the village, nestled on a slope of the valley, were in deep shadow. The Party’s face was everywhere—in letters carved on stone plaques; in a mural of colored glass depicting the Dear Leader standing in a field of golden wheat; in the tall obelisk that proclaimed the eternal life of his father, the Great Leader. Coal smoke drifted from the chimneys of the huts, which were neat and white with tiled roofs and small vegetable patches at the rear. It was so quiet she could hear the oxen lowing on the farm. The temperature was dropping fast. Her knees had swollen up painfully.  

She pushed open her door and found Tae-hyon sitting crossed-legged on the floor, smoking a roll-up of black tobacco. Under the exposed bulb his face was as lined and rutted as an exhausted field.

He’d done nothing all day, she could tell. But it was important to her that a husband shouldn’t lose face, so she smiled and said, ‘I’m so happy I married you’.

Tae-hyon looked away. ‘I’m glad one of us is cheerful.’ 

She lowered her basket to the floor and slipped off her rubber boots. The electricity would go off at any minute so she lit a kerosene lantern and placed it on the low table. Her concrete floor was spic and span, the sleeping mats rolled up, her glazed kimchi pots stood in a row next to the iron stove, and the air-brushed faces on the wall, the portraits of the Leaders, Father and Son, were clean and dusted with the special cloth.

Tae-hyon was eyeing the basket. She had not found a single mushroom in the forest, and had nothing but fern bracken and corn stalks to add to the soup, but tonight, at least, he would not be disappointed. She took the plastic sack from her basket and showed it to him. ‘On a balloon,’ she said, dropping her voice. ‘From the village below.’

Tae-hyon’s eyes bulged on hearing the euphemism for the South, and followed her hand as she took out each item and placed it on the floor in front of him. Then she opened the carton of cookies and gave him the uneaten half of her Choco Pie. His mouth moved slowly as he ate, savoring the heavenly flavors, and in a gesture that broke her heart he reached out and held her hand. 

Tomorrow she would scatter an offering of salt to the mountain spirits, she said, and travel into Hyesan to sell the cookies. With the money she would make, she could—

Three hard knocks sounded at the door. 

A cold terror passed between them. She swept the items underneath the low table and opened the door. A woman of about fifty was on the doorstep, holding up an electric lamp. Her head was wrapped in a grimy headscarf and she wore a red armband on the sleeve of her overalls. Her face was as plain as a blister. 

‘An enemy balloon was found in the forest with the package removed,’ she said. ‘The Bowibu are warning us not to touch them. They’re carrying poison chemicals.’


D. B. John has lived in South Korea and is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He co-authored The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee’s New York Times bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea.

 

 

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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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Deep Blue Trouble – Steph Broadribb

Title – Deep Blue Trouble

Author – Steph Broadribb

Published – November 2017

Genre – Thriller

This is the follow-up to Steph’s debut ‘Deep Down Dead‘ and takes place pretty much where Deep Down Dead ends – Lori is desperate to get JT out of prison and in the absence of a witness (the only one who can vouch for JT is in a coma) Lori agrees to take on a job for FBI agent Alex Monroe.

Monroe seems to hold all the cards which isn’t a situation that Lori is exactly comfortable with and flies in the face of everything she learned from JT – but she has no choice. Leaving her daughter, Dakota, at summer camp she sets off to recapture Gibson ‘The Fish’ Fletcher, a man she has captured in the past but who is now on the loose following a jail break. It’s obvious that Monroe has a personal reason for wanting Lori to be the one to take Fletcher but he operates on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. What unfolds in a rollercoaster of a chase across America and even venturing into Mexico on the trail of the missing man.

Lori remains driven by her feelings for JT and her worries for her daughter. She’s as ‘kick-ass’ as she was in the first book but the situation demands that this time she’s acting more on her own than as part of a team. She has one person she can call on for help and is given the support of a team through Monroe but she’s not used to trusting people she doesn’t know but her lack of allies leads to more internal monologue.

The first book featured a lot of Lori’s backstory (so you may be better reading the series in order) so it was going to be interesting to see how the second book would develop without this. Some of this is dealt with by having some of the story from JT’s point of view and for the reader understanding his situation in jail adds to the tension – there are some repercussions from the previous book. There’s also more of an investigative aspect – so part PI/part bounty hunter.

What I particularly admire is how different the voice in the book is to the author. You can often go to events or meet authors and when you speak to them you can see something of them in their books – the voice they write with is similar to their own. If you’ve ever come across Steph at an event you will know how different she is to Lori. Perhaps if you’re American and read the books something might jar but for me it feels completely authentic and there’s nothing that would make me think this wasn’t written by someone as American as Lori.

If you like a strong female character with a unique voice and rollercoaster thriller then this is the book for you. Many thanks to Lounge Books for the free download.

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