Fitful Head by CJ Harter

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of being introduced to local author CJ Harter by a very good friend of mine. I read and reviewed her debut novel, Rowan’s Well, and quite frankly, it was brilliant.(Rowan’s Well by CJ Harter) It was Domestic Noir at its best. It was a very dark novel, really disturbing in places, but it was a fascinating and engaging read. So, aware that she was writing her next novel, I was very excited to read it.

Fitful Head is different to Rowan’s Well. Whilst it is a psychological thriller of sorts, it is essentially a ghost story. Isobel is trying, unsuccessfully, to rebuild her life after it is torn apart by the death of her husband, Richard, whilst they are on holiday in Barcelona with their two teenage children, Ben and Melissa. She is simply existing and following the same routine each day, until she meets a mysterious stranger whilst walking her dog at Pennington Flash, a local nature reserve. Whilst wary of the stranger, she finds herself drawn to him, but when Isobel starts experiencing strange happenings in her home, she wonders if there is a connection to the stranger or if Richard is behind the ghostly events. As her family and friends worry about Isobel’s state of mind, and bear witness to some of the strange happenings in their family home, Isobel struggles to cope.

I’m not necessarily a fan of ghost stories generally, but I was completely gripped by this book. Harter makes the paranormal events so plausible, as a reader you easily buy into the experiences of the characters and feel every bit as uneasy as they do. She uses every literary device available to her to make the settings enhance the unease of the characters.

Harter’s character construction is beautifully executed, making them believable and likeable. As a reader, you want Isobel to find peace and to be able to cope with her grief. You want her family to pull together and you want her to lean on those who love her. Using a series of flashback chapters to give an insight of Isobel before Richard’s death, this assists the reader in piecing together Isobel’s state of mind, her relationship with her husband and other events which have shaped how she is feeling as the events of the novel take place.

Harter has a wonderful talent for shocking her readers. She did that in Rowan’s Well and there are a number of shocking bits in Fitful Head. You don’t forget a CJ Harter book in a hurry and readers have a more enjoyable reading experience as a result. For me, the location of the novel being a five minute drive from my house, familiar places added an additional facet of awareness and enhanced my perception of the setting and the characters responses. I know Pennington Flash well. I take my children there to see the ducks and the Canada Geese. It is a great setting for this story and Harter depicts it perfectly.

I also loved the continuous references to Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I’m a big fan of poetry, and particularly Emily Dickinson. It is used fittingly throughout the novel and plays a prominent role in the final chapter.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fitful Head. CJ Harter is a truly gifted writer, and lovely lady too. I have loved both of her books for very different reasons, but both have kept me gripped, mainly with fear, throughout. The ending is exactly right and I have no doubt that anyone who picks this book up will have a brilliantly chilling but enjoyable reading experience. I cannot recommend this book enough, whether you are a fan of ghost stories or not.


Blue Night by Simone Buchholz (Orenda Books)

Something that I’ve come to expect from an Orenda Books publication is that it will be unique in its own special way. Therefore, it’s always a very exciting prospect when I get Orenda book post and Blue Night by Simone Buchholz was no exception.

Blue Night is predominantly narrated by Chastity Riley, who has been transferred to the mundane witness protection team from the state prosecutor’s office after convicting one of her superiors. She is given the case of a man who is under police guard in hospital to try to work out what his story is and his involvement with the Albanian mafia kingpin who her friend is working hard to bring down.

Chastity Riley is a complex character, brilliantly depicted by Buchholz and her translator, Rachel Ward. She is troubled by her past, but determined in her approach to everything she does. She is by no means a reliable narrator and has a lot of secrets which enhances the reading experience by creating an air of mystery around the main character. Surrounded by equally mixed up characters, the reader has to rely on the evidence put forward to work out the truth, which is exactly what readers want from a crime novel.

The structure itself is quite strange, a common feature of Orenda novels, where there is the first person narrative from Chastity, interspersed with snippets of narrative from other characters from past and present, to add a further air of mystery. The plot itself is quite slow to start but it seeps into the readers psyche, urging them to read on.

The setting in Germany is also quite dark and gloomy, which further enhances the mystery somehow. It is by no means a cheery novel, although Chastity herself is quite witty at times. She is likeable, if not reliable, which makes the reader want her to succeed in working out the mystery. She is an incredibly deep character which will undoubtedly make for further interesting storylines, as it does feel that by the end of Blue Night, the reader only scratches the surface of Chastity Riley and that there is a lot more to learn.

Blue Night is a deliciously dark novel with layers upon layers of mystery, not all uncovered by the end of it. Buchholz leaves her readers intrigued to know more about these characters. Whatever case Chastity Riley takes up next, if indeed she does, I’ll be very keen to uncover it with her. The magic of Orenda Books strikes again!


All Her Starry Fates by Lady Grey

I read a lot of poetry and it is always lovely to read a new collection, so I was honoured to be asked to read and review All Her Starry Fates by Lady Grey.

As its title suggests, All Her Starry Fates has an ethereal feel to it, juxtapositioning everyday life problems within the landscape of a grander scheme of things. Described as a collection of courage, this collection eloquently portrays someone with a distinct lack of confidence in themselves and their decisions. The persona in the poems questions those decisions, in poems with simple phrases and varied structures throughout.

The poems vary in length but each one provokes the reader to build a picture in their head of the writer’s emotional state.  Lady Grey uses repetition to give a feeling of confusion and sense of frustration.  EE Cummings’ influence is clear in some of the poems, particularly with the use of lower case letters. This adds an air of unease to the words, as if the writer is filled with anxiety

Whilst self-doubt is prevalent throughout, there is also hope, particularly as the collection progresses. The sense that less is more works so well for this collection, as the simplicity of the poems lays bare a multitude of emotions that it is obvious that even the shortest of poems has been carefully constructed for maximum impact.

This is a lovely collection of poems that is easily readable and relatable. As an avid reader of poetry, I would highly recommend this collection for any reader. For those new to poetry, this is an easy collection to start with, and for those who are keen poetry readers, this is a wonderfully thought-provoking and well-written collection.



Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Last year, I read what I thought was a truly innovative novel, Six Stories, by Matt Wesolowski. I enjoyed reading it immensely and particularly liked the structure of six podcasts containing interviews with six witnesses to a crime mystery. I was very eager to read the next “Six Stories” novel, Hydra.

In Hydra, Scott King, the journalist and presenter of the Six Stories podcast series, is reviewing the case of Arla Macleod, who at twenty-one years old, bludgeons her mother, stepfather and sister to death with a hammer. Convicted of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility and put into a mental institution, Scott wants to see what led this young girl to kill her family. Scott interviews Arla and those who knew her; friends and acquaintances that may be able to offer an insight to reasons why Arla would become so detached from reality to the point where she kills her family. However, as his investigation goes on, it seems that some of his interviewees are holding back and when Scott starts to receive threats via text, it seems someone doesn’t want this case being scrutinised.

The structure of Hydra is what really makes this novel so gripping. Each podcast/chapter contains a transcript of Arla’s recordings to her psychologist at the secure unit, which shows her state of mind and times when she is more lucid than others. This offers the reader an insight into Arla’s innermost thoughts and it is clear that there have been events which have shaped her mindset. There are the interviews with people linked with Arla, and there are the interjections by Scott King. Intermingled with news reports, documentary excerpts and the text messages received by Scott, as a reader, you become the investigator reviewing the evidence put in front of you.

Wesolowski is a very skilled writer. Each podcast has enough information to carry the story forward but keeps enough back to keep the reader invested. The interviewees are not necessarily reliable, not least because they are relaying memories from years before, as well as the sense that some are holding back, and we are reminded about this at regular junctures by Scott King. As readers, we share Scott’s frustrations. Scott is our objective viewpoint and Wesolowski balances Scott’s interjections to perfect effect for the reader.

As a series, the “Six Stories” structure could continue indefinitely for as long as Wesolowski wants to write them, and I can guarantee I would be one of the first in line to read them. Each book can be read as a stand-alone very easily and anyone who has any interest in true crime documentaries would love these novels. Orenda Books has struck gold yet again with the wonderful discovery of Matt Wesolowski’s writing, with it’s unique structure and I look forward to reading more of his books in the future.



Deep Blue Trouble by Steph Broadribb

I’m a massive fan of Stephanie Plum, the creation of prolific author, Janet Evanovich. So, when I read Steph Broadribb’s novel Deep Down Dead last year, I loved it. Much more serious than Evanovich’s protagonist, Lori Anderson is a bounty hunter with a chequered past that has left her scarred. I was very excited when Deep Blue Trouble fell through my letterbox so I could find out what happens next.

Lori Anderson is again fighting for her family. Her once-lover, once-mentor and father to her daughter, JT, is in jail for the attempted murder of a security guard, but he did not commit the crime. Lori cuts a deal with her FBI contact, to find and bring back to him a criminal who has murdered a couple in an apparent bungled burglary with in return for JT’s release from prison. However, all is not as it seems, and while she is looking for her felon, JT is in danger in prison, adding extra urgency to Lori’s case.

Broadribb has brilliant character building skills. She manages to capture various facets of Lori’s emotional state at every step of her journey: fear for JT and her daughter, Dakota; irritation and anger at the conflicting evidence in front of her; frustration at the lack of control over any given situation; and vulnerability when she considers her relationships with JT and Dakota. Lori is a fascinating mass of contradiction, and the reader wants her to succeed.

There’s lots of experience in Broadribb’s writing. Her own previous life as a bounty hunter is undoubtedly woven into the narrative which makes the novel, and Lori’s experiences more authentic. Lori is skilled at what she does and at no point appears incompetent, even when she is coming unstuck.

There’s so much scope in the character of Lori Anderson that Broadribb has left her readers intrigued to see what will happen next, much like there was at the end of Deep Down Dead. There are also a number of additional characters in this novel that could easily make future books as gripping as Deep Blue Trouble.

Deep Blue Trouble is fast-paced, edgy and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Broadribb has written a fantastic sequel that will keep fans of the first book very interested to know where Lori’s journey will take her next. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next instalment.


The Silver Wolf by Rob Sinclair (Bloodhound Books)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve always waited in eager anticipation of Rob Sinclair’s next novel. Having read his debut novel, Dance With The Enemy, the first in the Carl Logan series, I was fully invested in Logan’s story. The transition from Carl Logan to James Ryker has been brilliantly executed by Sinclair and I was very much looking forward to reading The Silver Wolf.

In the third book in this series, James Ryker wants answers following the disappearance of the love of his life, Lisa. An attack on Ryker’s former employers, the Joint Intelligence Agency, distracts Ryker from his mission to find those responsible for Lisa’s disappearance but are the two inextricably linked? A twisted web of seemingly unconnected events all seems to come back to one name, an enigma called The Silver Wolf.

What I love about this character is that he is always so near, yet so far, to a happy ending, which gives him an unpredictable edge. As a reader, you never quite know if Ryker’s hot-headedness will overcome him and put him in danger and Sinclair plays on this so well by creating events that could send Ryker either way, building up a deliciously suspenseful read.

Ryker is also an impeccable, supposedly-former, agent with razor-sharp instincts, so he can demonstrate moments of brilliance to either solve a puzzle or extract himself from danger. He can also endure various torturous situations which Sinclair portrays in wonderfully gory detail. Surrounded by characters that ground him or rile him, exchanges with Ryker are never arbitrary, as they carry the plot forward, or add to the intrigue of who Ryker can or cannot trust.

Sinclair has generated a lovable, yet deeply flawed, character who readers instantly champion. He’s rarely smug and doesn’t feel sorry for himself; he’s almost resigned to the fact that he is never going to escape the tough life he has found himself in and the elusive happy ending seems just out of reach for him, which makes the reader sympathise with him. All this just keeps the reader wanting more and more. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last James Ryker novel, but if it is, what a brilliant last novel to finish the character on. Needless to say, I’ll be looking forward to reading the next Rob Sinclair novel.


Interview – Matt Johnson – author of Wicked Game, Deadly Game and End Game (Orenda Books)

Matt Johnson is the critically acclaimed author of Wicked Game,Deadly Game and the upcoming final chapter in the trilogy, End Game (published by Orenda Books), crime thriller novels about Robert Finlay, an ex-SAS soldier and policeman, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Matt has very kindly agreed to an interview with me alongside the cover reveal for End Game.

Hi Matt. Tell me about Robert Finlay, the main protagonist in your first two novels, Wicked Game and Deadly Game:

I’m not too sure where Finlay’s character came from, Lisa. He certainly wasn’t planned. I started writing many years ago, not with the intention of writing a book but as a therapy, a means suggested by a counsellor to address the PTSD I had been diagnosed with. At that time I wrote about my symptoms, their causes, and about my career in the Army and police. It was only much later that the idea came about to use the notes that resulted to create a crime thriller. As I wrote, Finlay evolved as the main protagonist of the story. He isn’t me, and Wicked Game isn’t an autobiography, but I have used many of my personal career experiences in the telling of his story.

Finlay, like me, is a soldier who became a cop. Unlike me, he faces a threat from his past when terrorists discover his identity and that of friends from a similar special-forces background. His story is authentic, but the events in Wicked Game are, of course, fictional.

Finlay’s battle with PTSD is largely based on your own struggle with the disorder. How cathartic has the process of putting your experiences on paper been, albeit from a fictional standpoint?

It was very cathartic. At the time, and particularly when I started, I found it very challenging. Recording events in words, thinking about them, finding the right way to describe them and then writing about me, how I felt, how I reacted, how I was affected, it all served to compel me to unearth and address emotional issues that had built up over many years. I have likened it to the de-fragmentation of a hard disk on a pc, the before and after, where the result is a disc (or brain) that can function better for having undertaken the process.

As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of your books on, I love the character of Jenny, Finlay’s wife. In my opinion, she offers the reader an insight to Finlay that illuminates his struggle from the viewpoint of someone who likely knows him better than himself. Was this your intention for Jenny, or was she purely there to be Finlay’s raison d’etre?

From the feedback I’ve received I think you are not alone. People like Jenny. I created her as Finlay’s rock, the woman he turns to when he needs solid advice, and also as the life-partner he is motivated to protect. I didn’t want him to be a character that only had himself to worry about and as a result might act in a way that was perhaps too heroic or too cavalier. I wanted him to have to think about the effect his actions and decisions would have on others and to have that influence him. I also wanted a third-person view on the troubled character, to show what he cannot see of himself, and to care enough about him that she is prepared to also take risks. It was also important to me that Finlay and Jenny have a strong, caring relationship; characters to whom loyalty is important.

Have you known Finlay’s end game from book one or has your direction changed at all for Finlay’s story?

I’ve had a rough idea of where the story is heading, and it was always my intention to tell it over the course of a trilogy. Having said that, the story has evolved in the telling and the editing process has brought about several changes I didn’t foresee at the beginning.

What is your day to day writing process?

Pretty disorganised but I’m getting better. Wicked Game was written ‘on the hoof’ so to speak. The story developed as I wrote. By the time I started book two, I realised I was going to have to be more organised and, for book three, I became yet more disciplined. I have a daily target of one thousand words – which I seldom meet – but I’ve now learned to create a storyboard which I loosely follow as the narrative unfolds. I take my time and frequently take a break to go back and re-assess where I have reached. Often this produces new ideas that can change the story quite markedly.

I write creatively in the afternoon and evening. Mornings tend to be saved for emails, personal work and social media. I also like to get out as often as I can and will break off to give my dogs another walk up ‘the mountain’ where I do my best thinking. And I always try to carry a small digital recorder to save those little ideas that pop into the brain unexpectedly.

Who are your writing inspirations and why?

I was actually inspired to write by a series of events. To cut a long story short, I let a colleague down during the 1980s when I failed to recognise his PTSD. Many years later when I also became a victim I promised myself I would try to make amends for that failure by bringing the realities of the condition to the attention of people through the medium of fiction. So, it was that experience which inspired me to write.

In terms of role models, it’s a much harder question as, immediately before I started writing, I read very few books and I favoured non-fiction. I was a ‘holidays only’ reader of, perhaps three or four books a year. In my twenties and thirties I used to read a lot more, enjoying the work of James Herbert, Isaac Asimov, James Patterson and Paulo Coelho, amongst others.

Favourite author? Probably Lee Child.

How important is social media, and reviews by bloggers like myself, to you? 

Social media is really an essential writer’s tool. Without it, building a readership can be a very slow process indeed and interacting with readers is now so much easier – if time consuming! I learn from readers all the time and I read all my reviews. If someone likes the books I want to know what I did right – so I can repeat it – and if they have a constructive criticism I will also pay heed to it.

Book bloggers are something of a new phenomenon. I’ve heard mixed points of view from my fellow writers. Some think that the blogging world is very insular with bloggers essentially writing to a small audience who read each others blogs. Others, myself included, subscribe to the notion that book blogging is a growing medium that readers are now starting to cotton onto. Review sites like Goodreads and Amazon have their uses but, for those readers who want a more in-depth analysis of a book – that they are about to commit several days of their precious time to read – the blog is a growing source of a reliable assessment.

You tackle some real political hot potatoes in your novels, such as international terrorism and people trafficking. What do you do in terms of research when writing on such big issues?

Having spent the bulk of my working life dealing with such crimes, much of my fiction is based on my own experience of the realities of such subjects. Add in the fact that I’m also fortunate enough to have a good network of colleagues who are still in the police and related services and you’ll quickly see where I go when I need an idea or an answer to a question.

And then there is my natural detective’s curiosity. I read about current affairs and I explore every medium I can to learn more about subjects that capture my interest. Often this produces ideas, some of which I incorporate within my own work.

Wicked Game was self-published initially until Orenda Books weaved their magic over what was already a great narrative. To any aspiring author, what advice would you give on publishing their first novel?

If self-publishing I would advocate checking and re-checking your work before you press that ‘publish’ button. Check grammar, spelling etc. Check formatting, check layout, check everything and then get another set of eyes to re-check it. Nothing seems to frustrate readers more than having to fight through a badly proofed novel in order to try and get into what might be a really excellent story.

If commercially published, I’d say to trust the team around you. As a new writer I was initially somewhat alarmed by the way things can be taken out of your hands. Jacket design, marketing, price-setting and all manner of other decisions are made by others. Editing is also a real skill. What I’ve learned is that all the people involved in getting your book onto the shelves are very skilled and very professional, and by the time your ‘baby’ is ready for publication they have as much invested in it as you do – more, if you include the financial investment of your publisher. Trust them, they want it to succeed just as much as you do.

You’re currently finalising book three. Can you give us any information on what we can expect from Finlay in this next instalment?

Book three is called ‘End Game’ and is the final part of the Wicked Game trilogy describing the world of the Intelligence Services that Finlay and his former friends have entered into conflict with.

In this book, Finlay finds himself an outcast from the police service as he battles to clear a friend who has been imprisoned and falsely accused of a most serious crime.

‘End Game’ will take the reader into the world of the Hostage Negotiator and MI5, the Security Service, as I tackle issues of mental health in policing, betrayal, loyalty and the true meaning of courage.

Will this be Finlay’s last story or does he have more tales to tell?

I’m not sure. Certainly, I have sketched-out ideas for three more novels and one non-fiction book. I would like to see Finlay at the centre of these stories but whether he is, well, we will have to see.

For readers like myself who are eager to read Finlay’s next story, when will book three be published?

The publication target, I understand, is Feb/March 2018.

Thank you so much, Matt, for answering my questions. I look forward to reading End Game soon.