The Quiet People by Paul Cleave

From the PR: “Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are successful New Zealand crime writers, happily married and topping bestseller lists worldwide. They have been on the promotional circuit for years, joking that no one knows how to get away with crime like they do. After all, they write about it for a living.

So when their challenging seven-year-old son Zach disappears, the police and the public naturally wonder if they have finally decided to prove what they have been saying all this time… Are they trying
to show how they can commit the perfect crime?

Multi-award winning bestseller Paul Cleave returns with an electrifying and chilling thriller about family, public outrage and what a person might be capable of under pressure, that will keep you guessing until the final page”

Okay, so we all know the adage that you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover – a thoroughly bogus claim anyway – but it would be remiss of me to even think of reviewing Paul Cleave’s The Quiet People without mentioning how bloody awesome its cover art is. It’s also a pretty cracking proposition; many is the time I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t like to play chess with a few crime writers given how many moves ahead they seem to think. Of course there are also some where you have to wonder if they need to lie back on a couch and talk to someone at a large hourly rate. Obviously reality and a controlled, fictional world over which a writer reigns omnipotent are two different things, but could someone who spends their time coming up with tricky, hard to solve murders, actually get away with murder?

Which leads us to another question, the gist of this review; does Paul Cleave’s The Quiet People deliver on that premise? Does a cracking cover design grace a cracking novel? Oh hell yes.

Paul Cleave has delivered a novel that ‘gripping’ doesn’t do justice to. He kicks it off strong: getting the tension going with a chill-inducing prologue then darts into an equally nerve-wracking scenario as Cameron loses track of his son Zach at a fair. He doesn’t let off that hammer throughout – there’s no way of saying ‘just one more chapter’ with this bad boy, it’s intense in a delicious way.

As a parent of a seven year old son, I found this to have a whole lot of edge-of-the-seat moments and tore through with baited breath just hoping…. but then I can’t talk too much about plot because I don’t want to give this away – I’ve made enough ‘Bruce Willis was dead the whole time’ comments in these reviews. Without trotting out that chess metaphor for the second time in one review, I will say that Paul Cleave has crafted a brilliantly plotted and paced story here with some real vivid scenes. It has the expected twists and turns of a great thriller and a conclusion that might just floor you and it’s told with a masterful narrative and style and, yes, you may wonder if Paul Cleave might be capable of pulling of an unsolvable crime himself it’s so fiendishly clever in its storyline.

The characters push the tension along and Cleave paints them both fully and complex. There’s a real joy to be had seeing how they interact – particularly Cameron and Lisa – as the plot unfolds and the nuances in their behaviour sneak out and cracks appear, the same of which can be applied when the narrative switches to DI Rebecca Kent and her relationship with DI Ben Thompson. The narrative switch, and getting an alternative view of Cameron and his wife to that presented by his narrative is another brilliant element of Cleave’s craft.

Cleave’s prose is precise and wielded like only an expert can. He keeps it taught, powerful and it packs a sharp punch. Ridiculously compelling, tightly plotted and massively rewarding; The Quiet People is another shot of the bloody good stuff from Orenda Books.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blogtour.

Psychopaths Anonymous by Will Carver

From the PR: “When AA meetings make her want to drink more, alcoholic murderess Maeve sets up a group for psychopaths.

Maeve has everything. A high-powered job, a beautiful home, a string of uncomplicated one-night encounters. She’s also an addict: a functioning alcoholic with a dependence on sex and an insatiable appetite for killing men. When she can’t find a support group to share her obsession, she creates her own. And Psychopaths Anonymous is born. Friends of Maeve.

Now in a serious relationship, Maeve wants to keep the group a secret. But not everyone in the group adheres to the rules, and when a reckless member raises suspicions with the police, Maeve’s drinking spirals out of control. She needs to stop killing. She needs to close the group. But Maeve can’t seem to quit the things that are bad for her, including her new man…”

“I mean there’s obviously no God, and if there was, He’s not sitting around thinking ‘I need to make Jill quit the booze because the red wine turns her into such a cunt.’ That can’t be right. Even if you are everywhere and see everyone and know everything and know everything, you don’t give a fuck about Jill, she’s so annoying.”

This is not your standard thriller, but then Will Carver’s novels are anything but standard, he continues to carve a unique space in the genre with novels that sharply tongued and plotted, deliciously dark in humour and bite and meticulously crafted. Psychopaths Anonymous is another slice of the very good stuff from an exceedingly talented writer – reading a Will Carver you know that not only is this the work of a skilled wordsmith but one who clearly bloody loves it too, it means there’s really no way to read his work and not revel in the joy of doing so.

Yes; Psychopaths Anonymous paints with the darker colours on the palette – there’s murder, very bloody murder in fact, a lot of sex, murdered gangsters with genitalia stuffed into their mouth and plenty of scathing takes on humanity – but it does so with a decidedly insightful voice and a wicked sense of glee and wit that is, if you’ll pardon the pun, addictive. There is a theory that if you’re only exposed to one narrative voice – be it in literature, film, television etc – for a certain amount of time you will inevitably find elements of it in which you identify similarities to yourself. It’s why novels where the protagonist is far from a match for the reader still work, even if they’re capable of the most horrific acts.

How many people watched ‘Dexter’ and still enjoyed watching the character’s breakfast routine with each new episode’s credits as if they were watching an old friend, even if he’d spent the previous episode cutting people into small pieces and dumping them in the ocean? Will Carver’s novels are often populated and narrated by some of the most unpleasant characters guilty of the most heinous acts – one of his former novels was narrated by evil ‘itself’ – and yet his skill lies in a superb ability to find a way in which we can not only find an element to relate to but even agree with some of their most scathing of commentary.

Take Maeve for example. Maeve, as a character and narrative voice is massively compelling – a woman who, on the face of it, has it all and has it all nailed down. Yet it’s a facade – beneath that surface, not particularly too far beneath, is a dangerous whirlwind of a psychopath with a very well managed alcohol addiction and an itch to kill.

And yet… for a supposed ‘psychopath’ – someone lacking in empathy – her actions seem fuelled by a sense of injustice or righting wrongs, whether to her or not, and there are more than a few signs of compassion that peek through the cracks – enough, at least, to ensure you’re ‘with’ this narrative voice rather than feeling your reading the rantings of a Jeffrey Dahmer, say. Is she acting out of a sense of righting wrongs inflicted on those who have penetrated her facade and actually connected to her in some off-kilter way or are is it merely an excuse to indulge in another addiction, like that ‘well nothing important happened today but it is Friday’ excuse for an extra drink? It’ll all depend on your take on Maeve really, how much you’ve already found yourself identifying with in her or her reliability as a narrator.

She’s got no time for dickhead clients – I failed to supress my laughter at her comments during a meeting – or phonies and those that would force either themselves or their beliefs on others and Carver get’s these across in a darkly humours and spot on commentary that you can’t help but agree with. Of course, the difference is that Maeve tackles it in a more ‘hands-on’ way and ends up with a head in her fridge and the reader doesn’t.

It all makes for fucking brilliant fiction and a book that’s hard to put down as you tear from page to page like every other Will Carver novel to date, in fact. A wicked, not-at-all guilty pleasure that’s a joy to read and another great book from an outstanding talent.

My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda for feeding my particular addiction and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blogtour.

The Beresford by Will Carver

From the PR: “Just outside the city – any city, every city – is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford.

There’s a routine at The Beresford.

For Mrs May, every day’s the same: a cup of cold, black coffee in the morning, pruning roses, checking on her tenants, wine, prayer and an afternoon nap. She never leaves the building.

Abe Schwartz also lives at The Beresford. His housemate Smythe no longer does. Because Abe just killed him.

In exactly sixty seconds, Blair Conroy will ring the doorbell to her new home and Abe will answer the door. They will become friends. Perhaps lovers. And, when the time comes for one of them to die, as is always the case at The Beresford, there will be sixty seconds to move the body before the next unknowing soul arrives at the door.

Because nothing changes at The Beresford, until the doorbell rings…”

How to review a novel as devilishly brilliant as The Beresford… that’s the question. I’m still not sure that I have the answer.

Four books in now and I’m never sure what to expect from a new Will Carver novel. Hang on, that’s not entirely true as Carver has well established prior in creating ridiculously well-crafted novels that are wickedly sharp in both style and dark humour, hugely addictive and filled with his own incisive takes on human nature and perceived reality.

What I mean is that I open a new Will Carver novel with anticipation to discover what new twist awaits and it’s always something unexpected and brilliant. The Beresford doesn’t disappoint on that level – or any level in fact.

Will Carver has a very distinctive style and narrative that’s a real joy to read. It’s deceptive; with seemingly little effort he’s able to slip in a huge amount, a wealth of details being slipped in little by little until you’re deep into it and haven’t realised you’ve been holding your breath for the last few chapters.

The Beresford absolutely rocks along at a great pace and every page manages to deliver something fiendishly clever and another hook that propels you on to the next.

Yes, you could say The Beresford is a dark, and at times very dark, thriller / horror and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong but it’s done in way that almost takes delight in the absurdity – Abe searching for ways to dispose of a dead body only to kick himself for forgetting to use private mode – of the situations rather than the gore or shock. It’s a very intelligent dark thriller, then, told with a knowing wink and grin that makes for a wickedly good read that I didn’t want to end.

My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy of The Beresford and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review as part of the blog tour.

Red Corona by Tim Glister

From the PR: “British secret agent Richard Knox has been hung out to dry by someone in MI5, and while his former boss lies in a coma, he needs to find the traitor in their midst.

In Russia, top scientist Irina Valera discovers the secret to sending messages through space, a technology that could change the world. But a terrible accident forces her to flee.

Desperate for a way back into MI5, Knox makes an unlikely ally in Abey Bennett, one of the CIA’s only female recruits, realising that Valera’s technology in the hands of the KGB could be catastrophic for the West.

As the age of global surveillance dawns, all three have something to prove.

Set against a backdrop of true events during the Cold War, RED CORONA is a smart, fast-paced spy thriller from a talented new crime writer.”

Sometimes a title is accidentally relevant. In this instance there’s no virus – the corona in question is the satellite reconnaissance programme the US ran from 1959 and into the early 70s – using satellites to produce aerial photographs of the USSR (and China). That’s right; we’re in glorious Cold War spy thriller territory here, a genre I’ve been immersing myself ever deeper in over the last few years so this one is right up my alley.

We’ve got disgraced agents, double agents, explosions – planned and accidental, chases and kidnappings, twists, turns, double crosses, executions and a great reveal. Oh, and the space race. All the elements are brilliantly set in place in amongst an intriguing and well realised plot that’s all the more noteworthy considering this is Tim Glister’s first novel.

Red Corona is a well-researched and vividly described novel with a pretty technical subject matter at its centre but Glister has clearly done his homework on it and possess the skill to convey the complexity and mechanics of it in a manner that’s both thorough and retains the pacing of the novel, vital in this genre and seamless here. Glister paints a detailed and lifelike picture of both 60’s London and the USSR and populates his novel with a great set of characters.

The three main narrative threads – those of Knox, Irina Valera and Abey Bennet – are all compelling and watching as they overlap and come together, revealing different facets of the story makes for a gripping read. Of the bunch I found Irina Valera’s exceptionally captivating, not only because Glister is tapping into an area for which I have a real interest but because it’s also very convincing in its detail and carries a real emotional wallop that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a spy thriller. Very much well worth a read.

My thanks to Point Blank / One World and  Anne Cater for my copy of Red Corona and asking me to join the Blog Tour.

Blog Tour – A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went?

Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press furore quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country.

While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is also isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world…

Breathtakingly brutal, dark and immensely moving, A Song of Isolation looks beneath the magpie glimmer of celebrity to uncover a sinister world dominated by greed and lies, and the unfathomable destruction of innocent lives… in an instant.”

Where to start with A Song of Isolation? Well, let’s start by saying ‘holy shit, this is a good book’. This Michael J Malone is a sneaky one… each of his previous four novels published by Orenda have managed to deliver a massively rewarding read that takes a detour from the expected and with A Song of Isolation Michael J Malone has  once again managed to deliver a thriller that subverts the genre’s tropes – there’s no body in sight for one thing – with a plot and narrative that packs real power and surprise.

Forget mysterious bodies and murders, broody cops with an alcoholic tendency or ex-military bruisers: A Song of Isolation is a much more taught and intellectual thriller that gets its tensions from the pain of injustice and the constant shadow of threat and panic that hangs over its principal characters.

What’s really compelling is Malone’s portrayal of characters in crisis and under pressure in situations nobody would expect or ever want to encounter. How would any reader respond if they or their loved one were falsely accused and charged of this most heinous of crimes and nobody believed the truth? Remember that phrase about how a lie can travel around the world before truth is still getting its pants on? Here that lie relates to a crime that is an instant – and understandably – gut-reaction button for everyone. I think we’ve probably all read a story in the press where someone is accused of it and instantly wished them hell before any evidence is heard. But this time the lie is told so convincingly that telling the truth is like screaming in the wind and innocent lives are cracked, ruined and thrown upside down – it’s real page-turning stuff.

Malone tackles some massively difficult subjects in A Song of Isolation – there’s the fact that we have a young girl being coached in giving evidence in a sexual assault trial, the perversion of justice, the treatment of the wrongly accused (David’s journey through the system and how he is handled specifically), self-harm and some unpleasant stalker stuff too – and he does so with a style that’s at times intense and unflinching but without resorting to shock value for the sake of it. Meanwhile his handling of some of the more sensitive elements – such as Damaris’ internal dialogue – is deft and insightful.

I really dig Michale J Malone’s style; it’s concise yet powerful and he’s got a really crafty way of hooking you in deep so before you realise it you’ve burnt up half the night reading and you still don’t want to put the book down. It’s really bloody good stuff.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour: Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

From the PR: “Happily settled in Florida, Sonja believes she’s finally escaped the trap set by unscrupulous drug lords. But when her son Tomas is taken, she’s back to square one … and Iceland.

Her lover, Agla, is awaiting sentencing for financial misconduct after the banking crash, and Sonja refuses to see her. And that’s not all … Agla owes money to some extremely powerful men, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

With her former nemesis, customs officer Bragi, on her side, Sonja puts her own plan into motion, to bring down the drug barons and her scheming ex-husband, and get Tomas back safely. But things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Sonja finds herself caught in the centre of a trap that will put all of their lives at risk…

Set in a Reykjavík still covered in the dust of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, and with a dark, fast-paced and chilling plot and intriguing characters, Trap is an outstandingly original and sexy Nordic crime thriller, from one of the most exciting new names in crime fiction.”

OK: once again I’m at the point of wondering how the hell to review a book without giving away any spoilers. I’ll start at the beginning – the beginning of the trilogy of which Trap is the second part, that is. Last year’s Snare was a thoroughly clever thriller that managed to mix a fiendishly complex web of subplots with a real  emotional punch thanks to a cast of characters that made you question the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Trap takes everything that was great about Snare – which was plenty – and ratchets it up a level… or five.

While Snare was definitely a compelling read, it was very much a laying of foundations and, as such, reading it is kind of a perquisite for fully understanding Trap as it’s here that everything really kicks off and in the second installment in Lilja Sigurdardottir’s Reykjavik Noir Trilogy it’s on from the word go and doesn’t let up until the last page. Hugely compelling and addictive (I spent many a late night glue to this one), Trap does not pull any punches and blends the tenderness of its characters’ emotional motivations with the brutal reality of the world of drug smuggling to staggering affect. Throw in the white-collar crimes and corruption of the Icelandic financial crash and you’ve got a real page-turner on your hands that delivers on all levels.

Lilja Sigurdardottir has a real talent and manages to weave some fantastically complex plots together without losing any of the momentum and populates them with characters so well written as to generate a genuine emotional investment in them from the reader – especially, of course, when it comes to Sonja and Tomas. Which was an odd one for me as for the vast majority of Snare I found it hard to develop any sympathy for her given her actions. Again I’m really trying not to give anything away but  as the plot of this trilogy deepens and increasing levels of deception and back stabbing are revealed along with the reality of other characters’ actions and just how much of a, pardon the pun, trap Sonja was lead into,  it’s impossible not to get hooked and caught up in the web of lies and emotional manipulation. And as for Bragi and his motivations… well, it’s a need to read.

Trap is a powerful follow-up to Snare and I’m really looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.  My thanks as always to Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

Blog Tour: Keeper by Johana Gustawsson

From the PR: Whitechapel, 1888: London is bowed under Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

London 2015: actress Julianne Bell is abducted in a case similar to the terrible Tower Hamlets murders of some ten years earlier, and harking back to the Ripper killings of a century before.

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2015: a woman’s body is found mutilated in a forest, her wounds identical to those of the Tower Hamlets victims. With the man arrested for the Tower Hamlets crimes already locked up, do the new killings mean he has a dangerous accomplice, or is a copy-cat serial killer on the loose?

Profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells again find themselves drawn into an intriguing case, with personal links that turn their world upside down. Following the highly acclaimed Block 46 and guaranteed to disturb and enthral, Keeper is a breathless thriller from the new queen of French Noir.”

Blimey: I don’t think I’ve read a book as quickly as I read Keeper. This review is probably as fresh as it gets from turning the final page to hitting ‘new post’. So let’s see if I can stop saying “holy shit” to myself over an ending I did not see coming enough to start this review properly. Where to start….

Let’s start with last year. More specifically, Keeper‘s predecessor Block 46. It’s one of those books that stays with you long after turning the final page – it really left me contemplating the nature of evil and just how dark humanity can get. It was also bloody good. Otherwise it wouldn’t have a) stayed in my mind of so long and b) made me so keen to read Keeper when the opportunity arose.

Keeper find us back with the Roy and Castells and many of the ‘supporting’ cast of Block 46 but turns everything up a notch or twenty as Johana Gustawsson has clearly hit her stride with the characters and can really let things loose. Rather than just a follow-up Keeper feels like a real evolution for both characters and writer and I get the distinctly satisfying feeling that I’m in on the ground floor at the beginning of what will hopefully be a very long and fulfilling series.

As with Block 46Keeper combines past and present – in this instance the Jack The Ripper murders form the grisly historical pull – and it’s this blurring of known fact with fictional which makes Keeper so thoroughly gripping and raises it above the standard thriller fare. The odd thing is that this is an area of crime / history which – thanks to a random song – I’ve recently been fascinated by and exploring (timing, eh?)… the crimes themselves, the myriad of suspects and possibilities and the ‘letters’ from the Ripper that did the rounds. Keeper details the Whitechapel murders and the period in a way that’s both accurate enough to be convincing yet fresh and vital enough to keep the reader hooked.

Keeper is also not for the faint of heart. Johana Gustawsson writes with an absorbing prose and her pacing is so perfectly poised that there’s no chance of not being lured in  – and credit goes to translator Maxim Jakubowski as this book flows so perfectly you’d never know it was translated – so that when those revelations and shockers come they really hit hard.

Gustawsson has a really great knack for setting out her pieces early in the game, setting different, seemingly unrelated, narratives in motion across disparate locations and time and slowly, methodically, expertly weaving them together in a compellingly complex and taught plot that’s massively addictive and, once again, thought provoking. Keeper is a superbly written novel with great characters, a brilliantly conceived and delivered plot and more than enough to keep you thinking and hooked.

I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Keeper – published by Orenda Books – and my thanks again to Karen and Anne for my copy and inviting me to take part on this blogtour, do check out the other stops.

Blog Tour: We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

From the PR: “As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man’s heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown into the deep end of the investigation.

On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters. It’s enough to make DS Morales reach straight for a large whisky… ”

When I was sent the above description for We Were the Salt of the Sea (big thanks to Anne Cater) and asked if I’d like to take part in the blog tour, I leapt at the chance. There was something about it – aside from it having the unimpeachable Orenda logo on its spine – that suggested I’d love it.

So, let’s cut to the chase: did I love it? Oh hell yes! We Were the Salt of the Sea is an absolute, slow-burning masterpiece. A thoroughly absorbing and mesmerising read that draws you into both its story and setting and leaves you wanting to linger long after the last page.

It could be because I’ve always had a fondness for the sea and for harbours but it’s also a case that Roxanne Bouchard writes so compellingly of the Gaspé Peninsula, its people and environs that I found myself wondering about heading out to that remote spot. Though, as Bouchard conveys with almost poetic grace, the sea is far from calm and what it gives it takes. There were times when reading We Were the Salt of the Sea that I was left stunned by the tragedies and hardships many of this novel’s characters have borne with such stoic acceptance. It’s in the detailing of these lives and the slow unfolding of these stories and it’s characters’ lives that We Were the Salt of the Sea stands out – this is more exceedingly well crafted literary fiction than fast paced thriller.

But there is very much a mystery at the heart of We Were the Salt of the Sea,  and with a narrative that – as the blurb says – sees interviews and leads into Marie Garant’s death fade “into idle chit-chat” and events and eccentricities overtake avenues of investigation, the reader is in a unique position: on the one hand you’re after more of the insights into the lives of, say, Vital Bujold (who’s back story damn near broke my heart) but then, on the other, you also share the frustrations of DS Joaquin Morales as an outsider trying to break through just those distractions and find the truth.

It’s a very cleverly and beautifully written book and one with a reveal which, I don’t mind admitting, I did not see coming. Without dropping any spoilers I can honestly say that I did not for one moment suspect either the correct person or scenario, and it’s not all that often that that occurs. I was just too bloody happily caught up and entranced by everything We Were the Salt of the Sea has to offer – fantastic, deeply compelling characters, a great story and brilliant prose. Very highly recommended.

My utmost thanks, again, to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for my copy of We Were the Salt of the Sea and do check out the other stops on this blogtour.

Page turning, 2018 Part 1

I read a lot last year. I cleared 41 books in total, surpassing my target by 1. So, did I extend my target for this year? No, I’m going for 40 again – it seems like a good target and I don’t think I’d necessarily find more reading time in my days to get another 10 in.

That being said, I’m already off to a strong start to the year with 7 down and 2 on the go at the moment.

Oddly enough, there’s a bit of a theme that ties three of these four – and at least another four on the TBR for the next couple of months – together that wasn’t necessarily intended but Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was the first of the year and probably set the ball rolling.

Gorky Park was one of those books I’d often see in bookshops and ponder its contents before moving on but, this time, I read the back and took it home. An absolute 5 Star book – well deserving of the attention and praised it received. A crime thriller set in Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorky Park reads more like literary fiction than your standard thriller and is so thoroughly engrossing and, in Arkady, powered by a great character – I’m genuinely glad that this one evolved into a series of novels and will  be adding the following instalments (along with everything Ellroy’s) to my longer term reading list.

Trying to vary my reading I thought I’d take a stab at a ‘classic’ early on this year and ended up continuing a theme. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is set in a Soviet labour camp in the early 1950s and follows the single day of one of the prisoners – Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s deep into a 10 year sentence for ‘spying’ – he’d escaped his German captors during the war, made it back to his lines and was arrested as a spy. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the Gulag system and it adds a sense of weight and truth to this novel (if you’re up for a heavier read his Gulag Archipelago is a game-changer). It’s a short but intense read and noteable as it was one of the first accounts of Stalinist repression to have been published (less than 10 years after Old Whiskers’ death).

Of course, there’s always a need for something lighter and, as my Discworld collection slowly grows toward completion, I’ve usually got a Terry Pratchett novel ready to reread for the first time in at least a decade. I had – again – forgotten just how painfully funny The Last Continent is. First published in 1998, that means it had been two decades since I’d last read it and, as I had the briefest of memories of it and remembered nothing of its plot it was akin to reading it for the first time. Pratchett’s parody of Australian culture and media touch-points – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee all get a warm roasting – easily sits as one of his funniest and most accessible reads. The invention of Vegemite and Australian slang, in particular, had me chuckling into the night.

Back in 2016 I read Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. It’s a great novel, a cold-war thriller set in Berlin as the divide was going up. Another book-shop spotting, this year’s Defectors again finds Mr Kanon setting his work in the cold war, this time – spotting that them yet? – in Moscow. As the title suggests, Defectors tackles the theme of the defections in the 1950s / 60s and, specifically, what came next. A former CIA agent, Frank Weeks slipped the net and escaped to Moscow and, over a decade later, sends word to his brother, Simon, that he – and the Soviet State – wish to publish his memoirs and wants to use Simon’s publishing house to do so.

Leaving aside the twists of the plot for fear of giving anything away, where Defectors excels is in the depiction of life for those former ‘field agents without a field’ – living in a strange suspended state, a  sort of prison within the larger prison of the Soviet Empire. Technically ‘free’ to be yet only allowed to travel to enclosed dacha complexes, use certain stores and continually monitored. Kanon manages to fill his story with sufficiently realistic and historically accurate details to make it ring true without overdoing it and slowing down the momentum – this is a thriller after all. Kanon clearly an author whose back catalogue now warrants investigation.

Up next: more Russian classics, some World War Two diaries and some new novels from Nordic Noir’s godfathers…

Blog Tour: House of Spines by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he
discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…”

So, here we are with the latest novel from Michael J Malone and, I’ll be honest, after getting into House of Spines I did have to double check that this is the same Michael J Malone who wrote last year’s A Suitable Lie for Malone – as one glance at the man’s ‘cv’ will attest – is a very talented chameleonic writer clearly with “over 200 published poems, two poetry collections, six novels, countless articles and one work of non-fiction” to his name.

Whereas A Suitable Lie was something of a domestic-noir thriller with a twist on spousal abuse, House of Spines is very much a psychological thriller with heavy horror overtones and mystery that brings to mind the likes of Rebecca. Its setting in an old, practically empty and isolated manor really upping the opportunity to give Ran and the reader a real sense of the willies with the jarring jolts between Ran’s seclusion in the house and visits back to the modern world in the local village lending a further sense of disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the events back at Newtown Hall.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and well played mystery by Malone too, so thoroughly absorbing that’s impossible not to get caught up in and it’s impossible to express how so without given away a tiny bit of the plot so I’m gonna have to say that the next paragraph contains a SPOILER ALERT.

They say that if you’re only exposed to one narrative for so long you’ll eventually try and find ways to identify with it and find a sort of kinship (a sort of literary Stockholm perhaps) and this is true of House of Spines and Ranald. You get completely caught up in his viewpoint (even though it’s not told first-person) and, thus, in his struggles between distinguishing reality from fantasy and feeling completely in the dark on so many key points. For in the same way that his cousin has lead him a merry dance and played on Ran’s mental state so, too, is the reader left uncertain as to what is reality and what is the effect of Ran’s own mental state with so many puzzle pieces kept from view or merely hinted at with other characters holding on to key facts or leaving me exasperatingly frustrated at their seeming vow of silence on them. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to take a character and shake em by the lapels and scream “just sodding well tell him what the hell you know!”

I didn’t seen the final reveal coming, any of them for this is a mystery of many facets, and that’s always a good thing and the final sentence – in true horror style, managed to give me a chill. But then there’s so much going on for such a relatively novel it’s a wonder that it does all get resolved. From Ran’s own parental background, Newtown Hall and his Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick’s history to the current cousin-related concerns and it’s to Malone’s credit that the novel never feels over-stretched and these story lines are not only given all the space and to breath and come to fruition but are so ably wrapped up within the novel’s pages without feeling in the least bit rushed.

House of Spines is a cracking read that combines a real mystery with a genuinely touching and emotionally affecting story that, at times, makes you really feel for Ranald (and others without wanting to give anything else away) and one that I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks again to Orenda Books for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.