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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

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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Deadly Game (Orenda Books) by Matt Johnson

Today is the day that I get to post my review for the blog tour for a much awaited novel, ever since I had the fantastic honour of revealing the intriguing cover of Deadly Game by Matt Johnson last year. I have been a great supporter of Matt Johnson since his first book, Wicked Game, was my inspiration to start book reviewing, so I was particularly keen to get my hands on a copy of his book. Also, Orenda Books never disappoints, so when this book arrived, I started reading it straight away.

Robert Finlay is back and whilst he is struggling with the mental after-effects of the near-death experiences of himself and his wife, Jenny, he is trying his best to move on with his life. However, when he saves the life of the daughter of a Romanian publisher, Gheorghe Cristea, after an apparent chance encounter on a diving holiday, Finlay finds himself in danger yet again. Whilst investigating the murder of escaped slave trafficking victim, Relia Stanga, with his new team, Finlay finds himself questioning his judgement yet again, and as the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder take hold, Finlay’s marriage and his life is on the line. To add to Finlay’s misery, old ghosts seem to be raising their ugly heads and Finlay is struggling to work out what is genuine danger and what is just his paranoia getting the better of him.

Having suffered with PTSD himself, Johnson brings a real authenticity to Finlay’s suffering, as Finlay’s paranoia is another enemy that he has to try and outsmart. Finlay flits between vulnerable and heroic as he tries to manage his symptoms, whilst attempting to return to a sense of normality. Finlay doesn’t know who to trust, but nor does the reader, which adds to the mystery of who knows what and who is pulling the strings. Johnson writes Finlay so beautifully to generate the readers sympathy for this man who appreciates where his flaws are but who has such astute instincts that even when he is under pressure, he can still come out fighting and be able to weigh up a difficult situation and to know how to respond.

Johnson strategically manoeuvres Finlay through a world of spies, criminals and crime fighters, and as the authorities seem to all be at odds with each other, Finlay seems to be an almost impartial element who will follow his instincts more than he would follow the status quo. Where there should be a sense of protection from these various agencies, their motives are thrown into doubt throughout and Finlay is left to try and sift through the various viewpoints and game plans to try and work out what is true and what is staged for the greater good. Johnson provides enough authenticity to the roles and procedures of these various agencies that the reader is left to work out with Finlay who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and Finlay’s PTSD provides the reader with enough doubt in Finlay’s decision-making to generate lots of twists and turns and tension throughout.

Cleverly written, the intricate character building and changes in narrative voice has created a beautifully confusing plot as the reader doesn’t know who to trust. Also, the fear and worry of the one woman who knows Finlay better than anyone, his wife Jenny, further gives the reader a sense of doubt in their flawed hero. I made it clear in my review of Wicked Game that I loved the character of Jenny, and that hasn’t changed a bit. Although we don’t hear a lot from her in Deadly Game, she is undoubtedly the most important influence to Finlay and most in tune with his fluctuating emotions. Whilst I love Jenny and her input, it actually works to have her only in a few important scenes in the novel, as she is the key to determining just how much Finlay has a grip on things. These little hints are enough to confirm to the reader that Finlay is far from okay, but doesn’t completely obliterate the reader’s faith in Finlay by potentially giving too much information on just how much Jenny is concerned for her husband. Johnson’s care in building in each character up and revealing them just enough is key to how this book grips the reader and he gets it perfectly right.

Johnson has honed in on real issues which undoubtedly remind the reader of genuine atrocities that plague the U.K. The focus on human trafficking from Eastern Europe is not a fictitious problem and he takes great care to show how this occurs. He starts the book with Relia Stanga’s story, her belief that she is going to a better life, and the result of how this turns out for her is further explored throughout the book. Again, his extrapolation of real issues adds to the authenticity of his novel and definitely gives the reader plenty of food for thought. Johnson gives the reader an awareness of an issue perhaps not given a lot of thought to, which is a commendable thing to do in the writing of his book. Indeed, the promotional video issued by Johnson for Deadly Game focuses on the real problem of human trafficking more than the promotion of his novel.

Deadly Game does not disappoint at all. I loved reading this novel as much as I hoped I would. I love that the focus is more on Finlay’s state of mind rather than the action as we wind our way through the story. Again, awareness of an important issue, PTSD, is paramount for Johnson and this undoubtedly gives the novel a really interesting dimension. Rather than the main protagonist just doubting himself, he has a real issue that often prevents him from making sense of what is going on. Whilst the plot reaches a definite conclusion, Johnson leaves the reader with a sense of more to come. I am very much looking forward to Finlay’s next story, and would like to state my intention, here and now, that I would love to be on the blog tour for the next book too, please. In case there was any doubt… 🙂

Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb

I have read every Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovich that has been written, and I pre-order it every year when a new book is released. So, when I read the premise of Steph Broadribb’s novel, Deep Down Dead, published by the always brilliant Orenda Books, I was really looking forward to reading it.

Lori Anderson is a kick-ass bounty hunter and single mum to nine-year old Dakota. The reader is introduced to Lori as she picks up a job from the bond agency that she often works for, so she can raise money for Dakota’s medical bills, as she is remission from leukaemia. Lori has second thoughts when she realises that the fugitive she needs to capture is her former mentor and lover, JT, from a time she’d rather forget about. She puts her concerns to one side and takes the job, as she fears for her daughter’s health more than she fears seeing JT again. When she has to take Dakota with her on the three day journey because she has no childcare, little does Lori know that she is putting herself and her daughter in danger by revisiting the past.

One of things I loved about this novel is that Broadribb has not fallen into that trap of many “first in the series” novels, where so much time is wasted introducing all the characters to the reader, that it takes half the book before the action gets going, and the reader loses interest. Broadribb gets to the action pretty quickly and with a flashback of how Lori and JT came to meet, the reader knows all they need to know in order to move forward with the action.

Without wanting to give anything away, the bust does not go to plan and Lori is forced to question what she knows about JT and to decide whether or not he is the same person she knew from ten years earlier. Broadribb does a great job of showing Lori’s conflict with herself, as she remembers how she was when she was with JT before and what they went through. The reader is immersed in Lori’s thought processes, as Broadribb adds enough doubt to every decision to keep the suspense going throughout.

Throughout the novel, Lori revisits the rules that JT taught her when he showed her the tricks of the bounty hunter trade, and the way these are threaded through the chapters adds an extra level of fluidity to the story. It also reminds the reader of the depth of the past between Lori and JT, how much Lori’s life has been shaped by JT’s influence.This is cleverly done by Broadribb and is great springboard for Lori’s decision-making.

This is a beautifully structured novel which is fast paced and thoroughly enjoyable to read. It’s a completely different type of novel to the Stephanie Plum novels despite both having a feisty main protagonist. Deep Down Dead is a dark thriller which is action-packed from cover to cover and a real page-turner. Lori is a really likeable character who the reader cannot help but champion, even when she misjudges a situation. Steph Broadribb has written an absolute gem of a debut novel with lots of promise for future novels in the series. We get a sneaky peak of the first chapter of the second in the series and I cannot wait to read it. Orenda Books is starting the year with a bang and if last year is anything to go by (seven out of my top ten books of 2016 were published by Orenda) readers of Orenda books are in for a real treat!

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Road To Nowhere by Steven Suttie

I spent some of last weekend lounging in the sun in the back garden finishing off the third book in the DCI Miller series, Road To Nowhere by Steven Suttie. Having been a fan of Suttie’s novels since I was absolutely floored by the phenomenal One Man Crusade last year, I was really keen to read this third instalment. I had been a tad disappointed with Neighbours From Hell, not because it was a bad book but because it didn’t quite end as I’d have liked. The ending had left me feeling deflated and sad that there appeared to have been a grave miscarriage of justice (though I did comment in my review at the time that perhaps that was Suttie’s intention). I was genuinely gutted not to have felt as blown away as I did after One Man Crusade, so I was really hoping that this third book would redeem the DCI Miller series.

Road To Nowhere catches up with DCI Miller a little time after the “Neighbours From Hell” case. The mother of convicted killer, Rachel Birdsworth, is campaigning for a retrial and DCI Miller has little time or inclination to entertain this idea as he is thrown into a case which will generate a national response. Well respected family man Sergeant Jason Knight has vanished after a bike ride and when his wife Rebecca calls it in, Miller is asked to head up the case to find the missing policeman. The pressure is on as “one of their own” is unaccounted for.

Typically for a Steven Suttie novel, the action is described in a detached journalistic style, which allows the reader to make their own mind up without the influence of the author. This works so very well as Suttie doesn’t shy away from highly emotive topics. I’m not going to go into detail about the plot as it would undoubtedly spoil it for future readers but Suttie has a brilliant way for leading you down one absolute train of thought and turning it on its head. The best part of it is, you just don’t see it coming!

I think it would prove confusing to read this book as a standalone, but to be quite honest, you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t read the first two books first anyway, because they are wonderfully executed. The three books as a series would provide anyone with a good few brilliant hours of reading and although not for the faint-hearted, they contain some really strong characters.

DCI Miller and his team don’t interact quite as much in Road To Nowhere, and while I’d have loved to have seen more of the team dynamics, the book doesn’t suffer for this, in fact it works really well. I think there is plenty of mileage in further DCI Miller books to further explore these characters that we came to know and love in the first two books but this book has enough going on and to take up too much page space with this would have been an error on Suttie’s part, because it would have been lost. The plot moves fast in this novel and while the snippets that we get of Miller’s team are precious few, it feels very evenly balanced.

Suttie always provides a political edge to his novels and Road To Nowhere is no different. Lack of funding for public services, lack of resources and hidden agendas are all referred to in this novel. The role of the media and their manipulation of the unsuspecting viewers/readers is exposed but Suttie does not give any opinion in this novel. He gives the reader enough food for thought for them to make up their own mind. His narrative, apart from some character exchanges, is quite unemotional and more a provision of the facts, with an occasional clue as to what happens next, yet as a reader, my emotions were all over the place. Not quite to the extent that they were in One Man Crusade, (I don’t think any book will ever have quite the emotional effect on me that One Man Crusade did), but I felt shocked, sad, angry, amused, revolted and nervous that the scenarios that Suttie depicts in this novel (and his others too) could and most likely do, happen. Given that Suttie’s novels are based in the Manchester area, where I live, it is a bit disconcerting to imagine these events taking place so close to home. I recognise and have at least travelled through Suttie’s locations. Whilst adding an extra facet to like about these novels, it also adds another level of fear and suspense as you can’t help but consider that these potentially realistic fictional events are based just a few miles away.

Of course, there will be familiarities in Road To Nowhere for anyone who lives in the UK. Sky News is a big feature, almost another character, in this novel, as they play an equally helpful and hindering role in the search for Sergeant Knight. As Suttie describes the situation from the point of view of the Sky News staff and those who they source their information from, the reader gets a perception of every angle – from the police, from the relatives and friends of the victims and perpetrators and from the victims and perpetrators themselves. It is this balanced view that makes Road To Nowhere, like Neighbours From Hell and One Man Crusade before them, brilliant reads.

Special mention should go to Suttie’s brilliant choice of venue name for a truly brutal section of the book. The Segnalibro Sign Writing Co is an inspired bit of naming and it is shame that it was abandoned and used for such violent goings-on. Yet it worked so well and it brought a very big smile to my face!

My lovely friend Nichola, who has been reading these novels around the same time as I have, after she was captivated by One Man Crusade following my recommendation, was willing me to get cracking as she had already finished and it didn’t take me long to catch up because I couldn’t put it down. After a discussion over a nice meal this week, we were both in agreement that Suttie had absolutely smashed it with Road To Nowhere. Our gripes about the ending of Neighbours From Hell have been explored sufficiently and the main plot for this book is gripping and surprising throughout. The three books as trio would make a mind-blowing read for someone reading them one after the other and I sincerely hope that this is not the last we’ve seen of DCI Miller. There are so many storylines hinted at but not fully explored, and rightly so, in this novel but I would love to see them developed in future books. Nichola and I are waiting with baited breath to see if Suttie will oblige us with another instalment. Pretty, pretty please with sugar on top!!!!