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CWA Anthology of Short Stories – Mystery Tour – Edited by Martin Edwards (Orenda Books)

I don’t read a lot of short stories. Not because I don’t like them, more that I enjoy immersing myself in a longer narrative that will give me hours of reading pleasure. However, I have read two lots of short story anthologies recently and I have enjoyed them both immensely. The first was Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories with some connection (some barely recognisable) to the Charlotte Bronte classic, Jane Eyre. The most recent anthology was the the CWA Anthology of Short Stories – Mystery Tour. What struck me about both collections is the diversity of stories that have emerged by the various authors when given the same theme. This review is for the latter collection. The authors of the CWA Anthology of Short Stories – Mystery Tour were given the theme of travel to write a short crime/mystery story.

There wasn’t a single story I didn’t enjoy in this anthology, which is testament to whoever selected the stories to put in it. All the stories are very different but each is intriguing and engaging, with different angles on the theme of the collection. Of course, the authors are all members of the Crime Writers Association, so there is an expectation that the writing will be quality crime fiction, but there are no disappointments at all in this collection, each story individual but with a shared sense of trepidation for the reader as each story commences and surprise at the conclusion  (or lack thereof).

Although I enjoyed all of the stories, I had a few favourites in the collection. The Queen of Mystery by Ann Cleeves gets the anthology off to a brilliant start with an unusual turn of events. Her first person narrative gives off no clues as to how the story will pan out. Return to the Lake by Anna Mazzola is heart-rending, as is You’ll Be Dead By Dawn by C.L.Taylor, a wonderful achievement for such short narratives.

The Last Supper by Carol Ann Davis made me smile, a gem of a crime story with the ability to amuse. Similarly, Ed James’s contribution Travel Is Dangerous with his wonderful DS Scott Cullen character, a character I have come to know and love from James’s series, also provides some comedy in the dynamic between Cullen and his nemesis and former boss DS Brian Bain, alongside a great mystery story.

I liked the sense of vindication in High Flyer by Chris Simms, Wife on Tour by Julia Crouch and The Repentance Wood by Martin Edwards, highlighting the lengths people might go to when they have felt diminished by those around them.

Three On A Trail by Michael Stanley adds a little extra to the standard mystery (though I’m not going to say what that is). Having loved the recent Dectective Kubu novels released by Orenda Books, I’m already a fan of the writing duo that it was no surprise to enjoy this gripping short story. I also enjoyed the short, but sweet contribution by another Orenda stalwart, Ragnar Jonasson, whose letter from a traveller to his mother combines intrigue and the beautiful Icelandic landscape to  provide a chilling mystery.

If I had to pick one favourite, however, it would have to be No Way Back from J.M.Hewitt. This story was particularly memorable and hard-hitting, shocking and beautifully written, to fully encompass the theme of travel with a frighteningly murderous plot. There’s not a lot I can say about it without giving too much away, other than to say it is a fantastic short story. I have J.M. Hewitt’s novel, Exclusion Zone, on my kindle and will definitely be boosting it up my extensive TBR list, having enjoyed this story so much.

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of stories which provides the reader with myriad stories that gives short, sharp bursts of mystery-filled tales. Whilst I enjoy a more lengthy, character-building, plot-twisting narrative, what these authors have managed to achieve in such a short amount of words is nothing short of genius. What I have also found is that it will give you a taster by authors who you may not have previously read to entice you into reading their longer works. The compilation of the stories is perfectly balanced between totally shocking stories, amusing mysteries, and good old-fashioned detective tales. I look forward to reading more short story anthologies in the future.

 

Dying To Live by Michael Stanley (Orenda Books)

A few months ago, I read Deadly Harvest, the first Detective Kubu novel published by Orenda Books, and I loved it, a great crime novel set in Botswana. I was really excited to read another Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu crime story. 

In Dying To Live, Kubu is battling demons on a personal, as well as professional, level. Whilst a bushman, Heiseb, who appears older than you would assume is physically possible, is found murdered in the desert, Kubu’s adopted HIV positive daughter is fighting for her life, as her retrovirals start to fail. As in Deadly Harvest, muti, witch doctor potions, are heavily featured throughout the narrative. As Kubu and his colleague, Samantha Khama, try to find out who killed Heiseb, the disappearance of a prolific witch doctor seems too much of a coincidence.

As with Deadly Harvest, Dying to Live is a gripping crime novel, and while it is quite slow paced (mirroring the Botswanaian lifestyle), the plot is fascinating as it offers clues and red herrings throughout. The modern versus traditional lifestyle is juxtaposed beautifully and as even Kubu begins to wonder if muti could help his sick daughter. The writing duo, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollope, writing under the pseudonym Michael Stanley, have created a wonderful main protagonist in Kubu and a formidable sidekick in Khama, that the reader cannot help but want them to succeed. Restricted as they are by their location and the mindset of the traditionalist inhabitants, they always seem to get their answers one way or another.

A number of characters are introduced, both to inform and to confuse the reader into what these crimes are all about. The various characters are from a variety of backgrounds, traditional and modern, and the reader is left wondering just who the criminals are. 

Dying To Live is a fantastic novel, which is, of course, what we have come to expect from a book published by Orenda Books. Kubu is a really endearing character and there are times in this novel where I wanted to give him a big hug. These novels entice the reader with a beautifully written narrative and an engaging plot. I look forward to reading the next Michael Stanley collaboration.

The Black Hornet – Rob Sinclair (Bloodhound Books)

A couple of months ago, Rob Sinclair rebranded his fantastic Carl Logan character from the Enemy series and released the James Ryker series. Carl Logan went into hiding with his girlfriend, Angela, at the end of Hunt For The Enemy and he returned as James Ryker in The Red Cobra, with Angela renamed as Lisa Ryker. This was a very brave move by Sinclair, to take an already loved character such as Carl Logan and to rename him to generate a whole new series, but it absolutely paid off. The Red Cobra was brilliant and while Carl Logan was threaded throughout, the reader readily accepted him as James Ryker, as he returned to his past life for, supposedly, a short time. After really enjoying The Red Cobra and left reeling at its cliffhanger ending, I was really looking forward to reading the next book in the James Ryker series, The Black Hornet, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long.

In The Black Hornet, we join Ryker on his quest to find Lisa, who had vanished from their hideaway at the end of The Red Cobra. Ryker is in Mexico to catch up with an old contact, who he thinks will have information on Lisa’s disappearance. The meeting quickly deteriorates and he finds himself set up for murder and put in prison, seemingly as retaliation for transgressions during his time with the Joint Intelligence Agency, back when he was Carl Logan. However, not all is as it seems and Ryker has to navigate his way out of jail and to decide who he can trust, as he realises there is more to this situation than meets the eye. At the same time, in America, Congressman Douglas Ashford is embroiled in a dangerous game that links to Ryker’s situation. Ryker needs to find out how he can get himself out of the predicament he finds himself in, and how his past and present link, as well as trying to figure out how Lisa’s disappearance is linked to the complex situation he finds himself in.

One thing I have always commented on in all my reviews of Sinclair’s books, with no exceptions, is that he has a remarkable talent for building up suspense, often by mixing things up to keep the reader guessing. Things are never as they seem and often Logan/Ryker is key in throwing the reader off the scent as his emotions get the better of him. I really didn’t have a clue how it was all going to pan out right until the end, and again, we are left with many unanswered questions by the end of the novel, which only serves to enhance the reading experience as we eagerly await the next instalment.

Ryker struggles with conflicting emotions,  as he finds himself, yet again, being dragged back into Joint Intelligence Agency business against his will. Ryker can’t escape his past, and as he becomes more in control of his actions, the reader witnesses Ryker come into his own, using his experiences from when he was Carl Logan but with a more objective, more considered view about what to do next. His feelings for Lisa and his desire to get to the bottom of her disappearance is his motivation. He is no longer as motivated to be the fantastic J.I.A. agent that he was, however he can still take a good beating without faltering and he still has good instincts, both working in his favour.

How Sinclair amalgamates Logan and Ryker is really clever. Of course, they are one and the same, but Sinclair manages to instill in the reader a way of viewing them differently. We have seen a progression of the character from Dance With The Enemy, the first in the Enemy series, to The Black Hornet. His main protagonist has become more cynical, more aware and has learned to use his emotions largely to his advantage, where previously, he may have allowed them to engulf him and affect his judgement. Sinclair has developed Carl Logan to become a more savvy, thoughtful version of the headstrong Logan from the Enemy Series,  as James Ryker.

The Black Hornet is a brilliant sequel to The Red Cobra, and as eagerly anticipated as this book was, so too will the next instalment. There is so much more mileage in this character, particularly through this regeneration, and that is all down to Sinclair’s skill as an author. I starting reading this book as soon as it hit my inbox and I have no doubt that if I’m asked to be on the next blog tour, the next book will be read just as quickly, as I am desperate to know what James Ryker will do next. In Rob Sinclair’s hand’s, anything could happen, but it will be a brilliant, engaging read, that’s for sure.

The Black Hornet

Exquisite by Sarah Stovell (Orenda Books)

I’ll be honest, this review was almost not ready in time for my day on the Exquisite blog tour. I’ve spent the last two weeks knowing I needed to read it, really wanting to read it, but not finding the time in a busy two weeks of daily work, kids and general time-consuming life tasks. I needn’t have worried, though. In four and a half hours, I’ve devoured this psychological thriller and I’m comfortably writing this review at 2:45pm on Sunday 4th June, to be ready for my day on the blog tour on Monday 5th June. Phew!

Exquisite tells the story of Alice, a clever, aspiring writer who has had a troubled upbringing, and she has found herself in a rut with her artist-cum-layabout boyfriend, living in a hovel, and in her determination to revive her ambitions to be a writer, she submits a short story to try and gain a place on a writing course in Northumberland with revered, famous author, Bo Luxton. Bo reads Alice’s story and instantly feels a buzz about her potential protegé. When they meet, a relationship develops that throws both Bo and Alice into a turmoil. However, all is not as it seems.

Sarah Stovell writes with considerable artistry. The dual viewpoints of Bo and Alice enlightens the reader whilst adding another sense of mystery, as the reader does not know who to trust. The sporadic chapters written from Her Majesty’s Prison for Women, Yorkshire, written in italics, tells the reader that one of the women has done something so drastic that they have ended up in prison, but the reader is none the wiser as to which of the characters has turned to criminality.  The balance of the narrative is perfect to mislead the reader into changing their mind throughout as to who is speaking from prison.

The plot itself is quite simple but what Stovell does with it, how she builds it up and tells the story is nothing short of brilliant. I’m so glad I read this book in one sitting, because I know I would not have been able to put this down. Stovell has the reader gripped from the first chapter, one of the prison chapters. The novel holds such promise as a build up to some terrible event that has led to the apparent model prisoner committing a crime so terrible.

As is characteristic of novels published by Orenda Books, there is a great onus on the character development of the main protagonists in Exquisite. Bo and Alice are written with such precision, both with a harrowing back-story, both with their crosses to bear and both with a habit of making bad decisions. Stovell creates in the reader a sympathy with both characters and a confusion as to how one of these women could commit a crime so heinous that it leads to jail time. The prison chapters make the reader look for clues, but although they are there, Stovell still manages to distract the reader from the identity of the prisoner until it is revealed towards the end.

The beautiful Lake District backdrop to a considerable amount of the story feeds into the air of mystery, as the characters walk the fells and picnic in the stunningly atmospheric countryside. It’s used as  foreboding landscape, adding a sense of the unknown to the background, cleverly adding another layer of tension to the action without the reader fully being aware of it. Contrasted with Brighton, where Alice calls home, the Lake District is made to feel extremely attractive to the reader, particularly with its rich tapestry of literary history, but there’s an added feeling of vastness, which gives the narrative an interesting dynamic.

It is no surprise to me that this book is so brilliant. It has become so natural for Orenda Books to be synonymous with beautifully written, atmospheric, engaging and unique novels that it’s not so much an expectation, but a foregone conclusion that any novel released by Orenda will be exceptional to the point that you want to unread it and read it again with an unknowing mind. Exquisite is no exception. There is definitely scope for a sequel too. I don’t know if that is the intention, or whether this will be a stunning, stand-alone that leaves you to imagine what could happen next but what I do know is that I have enjoyed every twist and turn of this novel and I will, as always, be recommending this book wholeheartedly.

Exquisite Vis 3

Block 46 -Johanna Gustawsson

Orenda Books is renowned for publishing amazing translated novels. The blurb and promotional material for Block 46 by Johanna Gustawsson promised that this was going to be another gripping novel. It didn’t take me long to get from start to finish from this latest Orenda offering. No change there, then!

Block 46 is the first in the Roy & Castells series, which follows true-crime writer Alexis Castells and criminal profiler Emily Roy. Following the brutal murder of Alexis’s friend, Linnea Blix, in Sweden, Castells and Roy come together to try and find out what happened to her, how her death links with the recent murder of a little boy in London and what events at a concentration camp in 1944 have to do with these vile attacks.

The narrative starts quite slow and initially feels a little disjointed as it traverses time and location, as all the main characters are introduced. However, as the picture builds, the different landscapes become more and more intriguing, and the reader is treated to a mult-faceted story that entices the reader to search for clues alongside Castells and Roy. Told from a variety of viewpoints, Gustawson develops a story that is a beautifully woven web of shocks and unexpected outcomes. Just when you think you have it sussed out, another twist arises so you truly do not know where the story will go to the very end of the book.

Gustawsson has created brilliantly sculptured characters with plenty of mystery to pique your interest and to keep you wondering what will happen next. Whilst Alexis is quite emotional and has a vested interest in finding the murderer, Emily is a cool character, very focussed on finding the killer, but without any kind of emotional connection, more wanting to solve the puzzle. Their contrast makes for a very interesting pairing and they work in sync very well together, both bringing their skills to the table to get to the bottom of the murders.

The dynamic of the novel, with flashbacks to 1944, present day action and odd chapters of narrative from the killer’s perspective, helps to generate the rising tension throughout. I thought I had the killer worked out early on. I was wrong, at least three times! However, even when I thought I had worked it out, I was desperate to know what happens next and very keen to read on. (Good job too, because I was always wrong!!)

Roy and Castells are a perfect match and will undoubtedly have many more crimes to solve. The tenacity of Roy and Castells to get to the bottom of the crime rubs off on the reader as you become amateur detective alongside the fictional investigators, and that, for me, is truly the best kind of crime novel. If future novels are as fascinating as Block 46, I will be first in line to read them. Orenda Books continues to find brilliant novels and I continue to love them!

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The Man Who Loved Islands by David F. Ross (Orenda Books)

The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespa’s have been two of my favourite books of the last two years. I have been looking forward to reading the final book in the Disco Days trilogy, The Man Who Loved Islands, whilst feeling a bit sad that this is the last one. However, I knew that it would be a fitting end to what has been a brilliant series.

Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, once best friends, now barely acquaintances, have slowly come to realise that while they have followed their passions, now middle-aged, life has left them behind and they are depressed at the thought that their best years are behind them with nothing to look forward to but loneliness and eventual death. Having both reached an impasse in their respective lives, with health problems looming over them and career satisfaction a thing of the past, they are forced to re-assess where it all went wrong and to try to make things right. They need to find a common purpose, and using contacts from their past lives, including the mad, but hilariously funny, Max Mojo, former manager of the Miraculous Vespas, Bobby and Joey embark on a challenge of a lifetime, to try and right some wrongs and to secure a future for them both.

The Man Who Loved Islands, like the first two books, is a political and social commentary using the predominantly working class characters to highlight what it is like to make your own destiny in the face of social adversity. Ross discusses crippling mental illness, overwhelming loneliness, ambition and the ties of family in good times and bad, with a remarkable honesty. What Ross does so beautifully is that he creates a narrative with the perfect balance of poignancy and hilarity that keeps the reader invested in his characters and they will laugh and cry with each emotionally charged chapter.

The soundtrack to each novel is integral to the action on the page and in The Man Who Loved Islands, this is no different. Ross threads classic songs throughout the narrative to add another layer to the story. Much like a film creates an emotional connection by its soundtrack, so too does the song choices in Ross’s novels. Of course, Bobby is a DJ, and Max Mojo is a band manager, so music is an important aspect of the plot anyway, but the choice of songs is key, provoking a memory in the reader or placing the action at a particular time or location, and as much as the reader is mentally reading the novel in a Scottish accent (that might just be me), they are also mentally listening to the soundtrack as they read, which undoubtedly enhances the reading experience.

Ross also takes advantage of the locations in which his novels are set. Most notably in The Man Who Loved Islands, is the use of the Ailsa Craig as the location of Bobby and Joey’s challenge. Ailsa Craig reflects a monument that stands the test of time despite being battered by the elements and the wildlife, perhaps in the same way that the friendships within the trilogy survive despite taking a severe beating over the years. Bobby and Joey have had a turbulent relationship since they parted ways in their late teens but they remain fiercely loyal to each other, often despite themselves. Even Max Mojo, who looks after himself first, also seems to look after those who have helped him over the years, even if it is not always intentional.

The Man Who Loved Islands is a story about what happens when you have fought for your dreams against all odds, but have squandered friendships along the way, finding yourself lonely, regretful and unhappy. All the characters are perched on a knife-edge and their fortunes could go either way with every decision that they make, but ultimately, they have reached middle age and something is missing. Ross has finished off this trilogy in tremendous fashion. As we have come to expect from Ross, the plot lines have been intricately woven, and have been tied up beautifully in this last novel in the trilogy. Among the humour and the sadness, Ross injects hope into his novels and even when there seems to be no way back, the spirit of the characters in adversity as they rally each other in their own inimitable way, encourages the reader to see that everyone has the opportunity to change their trajectory.

Looking at the trilogy as a whole, this is a fantastic politically, socially and musically influenced set of novels about growing up and out of Ayrshire in the 80’s and revisiting the characters in the present day to see how they did. I love a book that can make me laugh out loud in one chapter and make me an emotional wreck in the next and every single book in this trilogy has had this effect on me. I have enjoyed every single page of these novels, from the nostalgia filled first book to the reality check third novel and I’m sorry that it is all over. I’m very much looking forward to reading future David F Ross novels, but I will be undoubtedly be revisiting this trilogy in the future as these novels have become firm favourites.

Man Who Loves Islands

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (Orenda Books)

Today I am honoured to be a stop on the blog tour for Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski. I was really looking forward to reading this latest Orenda Books thriller, so was very excited when it dropped through my letterbox for me to read and review.

Six Stories is written around a series of podcasts by Scott King (a pseudonym), a podcaster who interviews his interviewees wearing a mask to maintain his anonymity. The Six Stories series looks into unsolved murders and interviews those involved to try to glean some truth about what actually happened. This Six Stories series is an investigation into the death of 15-year-old boy, Tom Jeffries, whose body was found on Scarclaw Fell, a foreboding and ominous fell, 12 months after he had been reported missing. As Scott King interviews the various main players in events leading up to Tom’s disappearance, the reader is drawn into the mystery to discover the real story about how and why Tom came to be partially buried on the fell, only to be found by Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, son of the new landowner, and his friends.

The structure of this novel is a really unusual, but very effective concept in building up the tension throughout. Using the six podcasts as the main structure, with a side narration by Harry, as he too tries to get some answers by returning to the mysterious and dangerous landscape, we have a series of untrustworthy narrators, all of whom could be lying or at least omitting important information, which gives the reader a multitude of potential explanations as to how this young boy met his demise. The comments of Scott King as narrator of the podcasts, as he questions the stories told by these friends and witnesses to events leading up to Tom’s disappearance, feeds the reader with more questions too, so even when a story rings true, the reader can be thrown off course by the doubt that Scott King casts on their interviews, or provides validation to our own thoughts that may match those of Scott King.

The location of the events is foreboding in itself and appears to hold many secrets. Scarclaw Fell is created beautifully by Wesolowski and is undoubtedly an extra character, and suspect, in this story. In every scene, the fell looms as a secret-keeper. Indeed, as Harry is wandering the fell, this sense of potential answers being held within the landscape adds another layer of possibility for the reader, as its dark and dangerous presence is felt throughout.

There are contradictions in every story and every time it seems that you are getting nearer to the true story, another interviewee will cast doubt. Wesolowski creates the tension very effectively as each interview adds pieces to the puzzle, maybe. Scott King thinks the answers lie in the dynamics of the group of friends that Tom was with during the run up to his disappearance and as this is laid bare, Wesolowski cleverly creates the wonderful twists and turns that make up a fantastic thriller.

I absolutely loved this novel. Unusually, the danger to the individuals involved has passed, but even in investigating what happened to lead up to the tragic death of Tom Jeffries, the tension is palpable throughout. Wesolowski has taken a unique structure and used it to create a brilliantly written, enigmatic novel that draws the reader into the mystery of this story. Whilst Scott King focuses on the past, the inclusion of Harry returning to the fell weaved throughout, provides the reader with a multi-faceted narrative that keeps the reader fascinated. I loved the structure and what it brought to the mystery of this tale, bringing a modern twist to a traditional “whodunnit”. I will be happily recommending this novel to anyone who loves a good thriller.