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After He Died by Michael J. Malone (Orenda Books)

Since I started reviewing books for this site three years ago, I’ve encountered works from a number of authors that I’ve enjoyed so much, it has made me really look forward to their next novel. Michael J. Malone is one such author whose novel, A Suitable Lie, has placed him as a firm favourite of mine, so I was very excited to read his latest novel, After He Died.

Here’s the blurb:

When Paula Gadd’s husband of almost thirty years dies, just days away from the seventh anniversary
of their son Christopher’s death, her world falls apart. Grieving and bereft, she is stunned when a
young woman approaches her at the funeral service, and slips something into her pocket. A note
suggesting that Paula’s husband was not all that he seemed…
When the two women eventually meet, a series of revelations challenges everything Paula thought she
knew, and it becomes immediately clear that both women’s lives are in very real danger. Both a dark,
twisty slice of domestic noir and taut, explosive psychological thriller, After He Died is also a chilling
reminder that the people we trust the most can harbour the deadliest secrets…

I read this novel in a day. I took every spare moment and couldn’t get enough of this novel from the beginning to the end. Malone’s writing style urges you to read on, sewing the seed of intrigue into every page, and as a reader, you cannot wait to find out what the story is, behind the mystery.

Malone takes the reader on a journey of enlightenment for Paula Gadd, as her life as she knew it is turned upside down and she begins to question all that she thought she knew, whilst dealing with the trauma of the sudden death of her husband. The narrative perspective is such that the reader becomes enlightened as Paula does, which builds the mystery and creates a great story that keeps the reader engrossed to the end.

There is also a political aspect to this novel, as Malone brings into question the class divide in Glasgow (which, in all honesty, could apply to any UK town or city) and how rich and poor exist in close proximity to each other but live massively different lives. He addresses that lack of funding for social services, which is to the detriment of those who require it. What this novel also does is to show that actually, although those with money and those who don’t live very differently, ultimately love and grief feel the same, no matter who you are.

As with A Suitable Lie, and more recently, House of Spines, Malone has again showcased his abilities as a fantastic storyteller. His novels never take the path you’d expect them to, and it is always all the better for it. He wraps up the mystery perfectly and you leave the novel having had a very satisfying reading experience. In the last week, I’ve been fortunate enough to read two wonderful novels, both published by Orenda Books (the other being The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech), and I can’t help but wonder just how Orenda manages to source such unique and talented writers, What I do know is that I will undoubtedly be eager to read the next brilliant story by Michael J. Malone (and indeed, Louise Beech), and I look forward to encountering a few more Orenda star authors in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech (Orenda Books)

Reading a Louise Beech novel is like eating a beautifully crafted cupcake: you know before you taste it that it is going to be amazing, you enjoy every delicious mouthful and you feel sad after eating the last bite because this wonderful morsel has given you such immense pleasure that you can’t bear the thought that it is finished. i was very excited about the release of The Lion Tamer Who Lost and it sounded very intriguing. Here’s the blurb:

Be careful what you wish for…
Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he
wishes it hadn’t…
Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve.
When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined…
Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems
to be guided by fate. Or is it?
What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

One thing that always strikes me about Beech’s novels is that they are never one genre or another. You can’t fit her novels into a category, which is testament to the brilliant imagination that she has to generate a novel that is completely individual and incomparable to any other. The Lion Tamer Who Lost is no different. The characters go on a journey that Beech crafts beautifully, taking the reader back and forth in time to explain Ben and Andrew’s stories.

There’s an incredible honesty about The Lion Tamer Who Lost that enables the reader to sympathise with every character, even when they are doing something that is not necessarily the right thing to do. Each character has their flaws but the way Beech portrays them gives the reader a rounded view of them so they can forgive the character’s bad decisions. Every character has a tale to tell that shapes their attitudes and behaviour, and they are not always as the reader would expect.

The structure that Beech uses in this novel is perfect for building up the stories of these characters without giving everything away. The novel starts mid-way through Ben and Andrew’s stories then you are taken back and forth between the past and present day to illuminate why Ben seems despondent and somewhat haunted in the initial chapters. The quotes from Andrew’s books at the beginning of each chapter also carry their own messages and it is a perfectly balanced novel to create an optimum amount of mystery and desire to find out the full picture.

Love is, without a doubt, the main theme of this novel and Beech depicts the intensity of familial love, passionate/sexual love and friendship love with incredible skill. In Beech’s dedication at the front of the novel, she quotes her friend who says “love is love, no matter who it’s between”, and this is ultimately the message that you get from this novel, and what a beautiful sentiment to be left with! This has always been my own belief too, so to read a novel which reinforces that has been an absolute pleasure.

Yet again, Louise Beech has created a perfect novel. I have yet to read anything by Beech that I have felt has been missing something, which is why I always look forward to reading her stories. I enjoyed this novel from start to finish and I laughed, and cried, which is always a good sign. This is an incredibly moving novel, as Beech’s novels always are, and it was immensely enjoyable to read, taking me no time at all, as I couldn’t put it down. Louise Beech is undoubtedly the jewel in the Orenda Books crown and I look forward to reviewing her next masterpiece.

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The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor.

The Backstreets of Purgatory is a novel that brings together a variety of characters in Partick whose stories, though separate, intertwine throughout. Finn Garvie, the main character, is a spoilt man-child who strives for perfection in his art. He aspires to be the Caravaggio, his inspiration, of his time, but is struggling to assimilate his ideas onto the canvas. His girlfriend, who loves him, doesn’t know what to do with him; his best friend just irritates him and he is beguiled by the beautiful Kassia, convinced that she is his muse. When Caravaggio himself shows up in Finn’s life, stuck in purgatory until he assists Finn in finding his art mojo, Finn’s life takes an unexpected and sinister route.

This is an unusually constructed novel that deals with mental health issues, societal expectations and the individual character’s perceptions of success or failure. Taylor tells each character’s story, their thoughts on how their life has got to where it is and where they think it is going, and mirrors this with the other character’s who are inextricably linked across the board.

Taylor gives us a well-written, highly descriptive novel that is reminiscent of classic novels, with multi-sensual descriptions, and detailed, multi-faceted characters that are fraught with worries and show a distinct lack of confidence in themselves, that encourages them to skew their view of their surroundings and of those people around them.

This book also provides the reader with a lesson in Caravaggio himself. I knew nothing about Caravaggio beforehand, and Taylor gives enough biographical information and that of his paintings to give the reader enough information to follow the story but it also gives the reader an education too.

I found this novel a little unusual in places but it is funny, emotional, violent at times, and often poignant, ticking a lot of boxes in my “good novel” checklist. I look forward to reading Taylor’s next novel.

Paul McGraw:Kid to Killer by Paul Elliott

I must start this review with a big apology. I was invited onto this blog tour, read the book, started the review then life got in the way and I missed my tour date of yesterday. Sincerest apologies for the delay. Hopefully my review will be worth the wait.

Kid to Killer by Paul Elliott starts as a coming of age novel. Paul is fifteen years old and has moved around a lot, but after starting a new school in a rough part of Edinburgh, whilst he makes new friends quite easily, he finds the area is overrun with “zombies”, drug-addled individuals who terrorise the locals and attack them to obtain funds for their drugs or because the drugs have made them out of control. After an encounter with a “zombie”, the course of Paul’s life changes forever.

The novel does what it says on the cover. Paul goes from being a kid to being a killer. Elliott does a good job of showing his progression from one to the other, as circumstances dictate the initial actions in the novel but eventually Paul’s chooses his path.

I found this novel very easy to read and I was hooked all the way through. The premise is good and Elliott handles it well. Paul is a well-constructed character, and the other characters in the novel support the narrative very well. It also makes the reader question their own viewpoint on whether Paul’s actions can ever be justifiable.

I really enjoyed this novel from start to finish and I’d like to read more from Paul Elliott in the future.

Absolution by Paul Hardisty

The Claymore Straker series by Paul Hardisty is without a doubt a very valuable jewel in the Orenda Books crown. Every novel is a journey, figuratively and literally as Straker travels far and wide to fight his cause. I was honoured to be asked back on to the blog tour for this latest instalment.

In Absolution, Straker almost shares the limelight with his old flame, Rania, as she gives an account of her story in journal form alongside the third person narration of Clay’s story. Having kept his head down since giving evidence about his military service in South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his cover is blown and those who surround him are put in grave danger as he is hunted down. Parallel to this, Rania’s husband and young son have gone missing, and she is being framed for their murder. As both parties try to solve their problems using their skills honed from previous adventures, Clay and Rania try to help each other whilst fighting their feelings for each other for the greater good.

As with the other books in this series, Hardisty writes with great intelligence and weaves his narrative with scientific, political and religious analysis to educate the reader and provide truthful background to the settings in which he places Clay and Rania. Together with the stunning imagery to describe the most barren of landscapes, and his brilliant character structuring, a Hardisty novel does not disappoint.

The dual narrative with Rania’s diary and Clay’s perspective through a third person works really well. Both characters are flawed and are haunted by their past actions, yet both characters are driven by love to make difficult choices. Sometimes there is no good decision for the character’s to make and Hardisty’s bravery for putting these decisions into their hands is to be admired.

This novel moves fast and it did not take me long to read it, mainly because I could not put it down. Straker is such an intriguing character and no matter what he does, the reader wants him to have a happy ending, ideally with Rania given their attraction to each other. From the title of the book, and the direction the narrative takes, Hardisty could well leave this series as it is and it will be beautifully rounded off. However, there is undoubtedly potential for more and I would be sorry if this would be the last Straker novel.

End Game by Matt Johnson (Orenda Books)

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, author Matt Johnson was one of the reasons why I started writing book reviews. Floored by his self published debut novel Wicked Game, where readers were introduced by former SAS soldier turned police officer, Robert Finlay, I found myself enjoying reading a book that was not something I would have chosen to read voluntarily. I realised that I was likely missing out on a variety of books by not stepping out of my comfort zone. So, from then on, I read whatever was suggested to me and I’ve reviewed what I read ever since. Having read the two self published versions of Johnson’s first two books, I’d read the versions published by Orenda Books already knowing most of the story. So, I was very excited to read End Game, with no insight as to what would happen to Finlay.

In End Game, Finlay finds himself in danger again, after his friend Kevin Jones is framed for murder and the police complaints branch are attempting to take them to task for anything that they can make stick. With help from MI5 agent, Toni Fellowes, and Commander Bill Grahamslaw, Finlay tries to uncover the mystery whilst keeping himself and his family out of harms way.

Johnson has written a compelling story that ties up loose ends with Finlay and his associates. The characters that Johnson surrounds Finlay with adds a different perspective to his tale, making him an unreliable narrator at times. His judgement is often flawed due to the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and given his own experience with PTSD, Johnson portrays this with great authenticity.

Like his first two novels, End Game is full of secrets and lies, and the plot moves quickly from one mystery to another. UK Security Services are a key factor of this novel with a shifting perception of whether or not they are good or bad. Johnson displays a great working knowledge of the police, army and security services that make his novel very believable.

As a trilogy, the expectation is that this novel will round off the series, and it does exactly that. The reader is left with no loose ends by the end of the novel and feels that they have been on a traumatic journey with Finlay as he struggled to cope with the mess he found himself embroiled in, and his progression from suffering, to recognising, to learning to live with the symptoms of PTSD.

I have looked forward to reading this novel for so long and I was not disappointed. It has been an immense pleasure to follow Matt Johnson’s writing journey from self publishing his first two novels, to the Orenda Books versions and End Game. I look forward to reading future novels by Johnson and there is plenty of scope for more Finlay novels, if Johnson chooses to take that direction. Either way, I feel privileged to have been part of the Robert Finlay Series promotion and I look forward to writing my next review for Matt Johnson.

End Game Vis 2

The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady

I was delighted to be asked to read and review The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady. From the premise of the novel, it seemed like it would be a funny story.

Here’s the blurb:

THE BLURB:  The world of arms dealing, espionage and TV cookery collide in this fast moving comedy caper.

Failing celebrity agent Dermot Jack thinks his luck might have turned when a mysterious Russian oligarch hires him to represent his pop star daughter.

Disaffected MI5 officer Anna Preston is just as happy to be handed the chance to resurrect her own career. Little do they know that their paths are about to cross again after seventeen years as they’re thrown together in a desperate attempt to lure a notorious arms dealer into a highly unusual trap.

Hard enough without having to deal with the lecherous celebrity chef trying to save his daytime TV career or the diminutive mafia enforcer who definitely has his own agenda. Then there’s the very impatient loan shark who ‘just wants his money back’.

And Anna’s bosses are hardly playing it straight either. But one thing’s for sure. There’ll be winners and losers when the Meal of Fortune finally stops spinning. Oh, and another thing, Anna and Dermot are absolutely not about to fall in love again. That’s never going to happen, OK?

There is a lot going on in this novel but Brady keeps the plot moving with wonderful fluidity. Each character brings its own comedy to the story and all the characters are hilariously flawed in some way.

Alongside the hilariously funny characters, the plot is exciting and keeps the reader gripped throughout. Brady has multiple storylines going on yet manages to seamlessly link them all to a fantastic conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Any novel that offers up funny and exciting, like The Meal of Fortune does, is well worth a read and I would recommend it for anyone who likes a book that makes them laugh out loud.

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