Tag Archive | book review

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.

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Darker by EL James

I’ve written on my blog before about how the 50 Shades trilogy was my guilty pleasure. I reviewed Grey, the first book that told the 50 Shades story from the point of view of Christian Grey, and having been very excited about it’s release, I was left feeling very disappointed with it. Whilst I’d hoped to get an insight into the mind of James’s fascinating character, what I felt I got was a male version of Fifty Shades of Grey but with a few added insights into the mind of the elusive male protagonist. It was with some reluctance that I decided to download Darker, expecting more of the same, but I hoped that I would be pleasantly surprised.

Darker tells the story of Fifty Shades Darker from Christian’s point of view, but unlike Grey, the reader gets much more of an in-depth view of Christian’s vulnerabilities and we get to know what actually happened when Christian’s helicopter went down; what Grace said to Christian when she finds out that her best friend, Elena, abused her 15 year old son; and what happened when he finds Leila in Ana’s apartment. It didn’t feel like I was reading the same story with a few tweaks. I was actually being given more information and being provided with what I’d hoped for in Grey – an insight into the enigma that is Christian Grey.

James is not the best writer in the world. There is still a lot of repetition, cliches and a few big words and high-brow references chucked in to try and give the impression of a more intelligent narrative. However, this was much less prominent in Darker, and the characterisation of her intriguing characters was allowed to shine through. As a reader, you get another perspective to Ana’s and Christian’s relationship, seeing that Ana is actually the one in control, and has been from the beginning. Christian’s desire to control each and every situation is borne from his terrible start in life, his love for Ana, and his complete lack of capacity to understand and deal with emotional feelings and responses.

We get more of an insight into Christian’s childhood and his relationship with Elena, which illuminates how his character has been created. This is James’s skill and where her writing falls short, she excels in creating multi-layered characters. Christian is flawed, yet brilliant. He’s assured, yet vulnerable. He’s more interesting than Ana to some extent, as his upbringing has undoubtedly shaped his entrepreneurial brilliance and his inability to recognise love. His vulnerability and his success are a fascinating combination for the reader.

After being so disappointed in Grey, I enjoyed Darker much more. The Fifty Shades novels from Christian’s point of view were so sought after by fans of the trilogy after the couple of scenes at the end of book three, that Grey was a bitter disappointment. It seems that James has decided to give the readers what they wanted with Darker and I sincerely hope that we get more of the same with the Christian version of Fifty Shades Freed.

 

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.

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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