Saturday, 17 December 2016

Book review - The Mine by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston)

A hitman. A journalist. A family torn apart. Can he uncover the truth before it’s too late?

In the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company’s executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne’s personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life.

A traumatic story of family, a study in corruption, and a shocking reminder that secrets from the past can return to haunt us, with deadly results … The Mine is a gripping, beautifully written, terrifying and explosive thriller by the King of Helsinki Noir.

When Janne Vuori receives an anonymous tip off suggesting a nickel mine in northern Finland is engaged in hazardous activities he can't help to be interested. As an ambitious journalist he realises this could be an important story. He persuades his boss to allow him to conduct an investigation but as he delves further into the corrupt mining company's actions both he and his family - his wife Pauliina and two year old daughter Ella - are under threat. Slowly his personal life falls apart. He and Pauliina have stopped communicating, both angry with each other. She resents his preoccupation with his job but he is consumed with a need to write and to know the truth. Meanwhile the father he hasn't seen for thirty years comes back into his life and he isn't sure what relationship, if any, he wants with this man.
The Mine is a conspiracy thriller but it's also three stories in one, stories that are inextricably linked to each other. The first is Janne's investigation, gradually the truth is revealed and I have to say I really appreciated the pace of this book. This is not a story that races to an explosive finish, it's mostly written in the first person from Janne's viewpoint and as such we experience the frustrations he feels as he is faced with false leads and uncertainties. Tuomainen has a wonderful writing style, he doesn't use words unnecessarily yet his descriptions are vivid and he creates an atmospheric and tense story that draws the reader in. The second story within the book is that of Janne's personal life, the sense of regret and bitterness is palpable. Sometimes in thrillers I feel the protagonist's messy home life feels one dimensional, this is definitely not the case here. The characters' anger, disappointment and need for acceptance if not forgiveness are believable and ultimately quite touching. The third story within the story is told in the third person and is less about Janne than about a hitman, ruthless, experienced and seemingly cold but is slowly revealed to be more than a heartless killer and whose actions are directly linked both to Janne and his investigation. The three parts of the story combine to form a book that is taut, compelling and drew me in from start to finish. This is the second book I've read for Orenda Books blog tour, The Finnish Invasion and I feel I can't finish without praising the work of David Hackston who has translated both books so they flow seamlessly. Orenda is a small publisher whose output continues to impress me, they have become my go to for innovative fiction I know I will enjoy. Many thanks for my copy of The Mine received in return for my review.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review - The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that's become personal?

The Exiled is Kati Hiekkapelto's third book featuring police investigator Anna Fekete but true to form it's the first book I have read by this author. Thankfully it's a book that can be read as a standalone and although I intend to read the two preceding books (The Hummingbird and The Defenceless), I don't feel not having read them had a negative impact on my enjoyment of what is a cracking story.
Although described as Scandi or Nordic noir, the book is actually set in Serbia. Anna Fekete has returned to the country of her birth for a holiday and looks forward to spending time with her mother and her childhood friends. However, when her bag is snatched during a local wine festival, what appears to be an opportune crime turns out to be something much darker. Anna's relaxing holiday becomes an investigation into murder and corruption and it's a case that links directly to her own family history. Meanwhile the refugee crisis is spreading across Europe, and Anna as an exile herself struggles with the reactions of some of her peers and countrymen to the influx of foreigners to their country.
I loved The Exiled for many reasons. Firstly it's a superb thriller, it's dark and suspenseful, Anna's investigation means we know the townsfolk aren't all they seem and it could result in her life being in danger. This is a proper chilling and tense page-turner of a mystery. As good as it is as a thriller though, what really makes The Exiled stand out for me is its very human soul. This is actually a book about not belonging. The refugee crisis is handled with sensitivity not sentimentality, The Exiled is bitingly current yet not feeling you belong is an experience shared by many in a turbulent and often brutal world and Hiekkapelto understands this. She writes with an uncompromising honesty about the human condition. Whether it is the most recent refugees, the Romany gypsies struggling to survive in a world where they are often seen as criminals or Fekete herself, exiled to Finland during the Balkan wars, now not sure if her adopted country or the country of her birth is her home, the theme running through the book is that of feeling out of place, of the desperate need to put down roots and to belong.
I truly loved The Exiled and am honoured to be a part of a blog tour to highlight the quality of writing coming out of Finland. Please see below for more stops on the tour and check out some of the other blog posts about this superb book and talented author.

The Exiled is published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks for my advance copy received in return for my honest review.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Book Review - Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

 Edith Hind has gone missing, leaving just her coat and a smear of blood, and DS Manon Bradshaw has a window of 72 hours in which to find her before experience suggests it will become a murder investigation.
Police procedurals are perennially popular and in a saturated market an author really needs to write with confidence and flair or risk being lost in the crowd. Susie Steiner has done just that with Missing, Presumed, a book as much about the characters as the mystery. DS Manon Bradshaw is the heroine of the book and is neither too much the hard-bitten cynic nor the wide-eyed ingénue. She is often brittle and is lonely, spending sleepless nights listening to her police radio-  after a disappointing one night stand she rushes to become involved in Edith's case after hearing the report of her disappearance - but despite her clearly unfulfilled home life  she is empathetic and perceptive, and in a story that gradually builds in tension as the hours pass is the warm and humorous centre to the book. The other characters in the book are also entirely believable, the missing Edith we learn is passionate but irritatingly pretentious about causes she believes in, her parents, (her father is an eminent surgeon and friends with the Home Secretary) have to face not only their daughter's disappearance but also revelations about her private life, her mother's anguish searingly relatable regardless of your social class. Manon's colleagues too are exactly the sort of people you can imagine sharing an office with, the almost ever optimistic Davy who loves police jargon, cheerfully puts up with Manon's misanthropic nature and lives with a woman who is clearly undeserving of his devotion, Nigel, exhausted father of newborn twins, and  Detective Inspector Harriet Harper, Manon's superior - refreshingly their relationship is one based on mutual respect rather than the author falling back on the petty jealousies that so often plague books featuring strong women,
'This is what Manon likes most about Harriet –no, not likes, understands: she isn’t on an even keel. She feels the work in every fibre and it hurts her.'
Missing, Presumed feels entirely relevant.  From the hours of grinding investigation, to the pressure from higher up to solve a high profile case despite the confines of a budget, all under the watchful and hungry Press. Edith Hind might be a fictional character but we know how these stories play out, the media feeding frenzy, suspicion cast on friends and the family and the shift from waiting to hear reports from the police to demanding to know why they haven't yet solved the case.
This isn't the last we'll see of Manon Bradshaw as a sequel, Persons Unknown is due in 2017 and I know I won't be the only one to welcome her return. As I said previously, there are plenty of police procedurals to choose from - Susie Steiner has written one that encapsulates the gritty, messy world we live in and has done it without sacrificing the humour and warmth that binds people together despite the troubles life throws at us.
I received my copy of Missing, Presumed through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Missing, Presumed is published in the UK by The Borough Press and is out now.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Book Review - Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author and has numerous fans of his novels and short stories. However, it's only in the last few years that I've discovered how much I enjoy speculative fiction so this is my introduction to his writing.
 Short story collections remind me a bit of albums, some stories will become favourites whereas others may feel more like fillers, often skipped over. Now and again though an album is packed with quality and the same is true of Not So Much, Said the Cat. Inevitably there were some stories I was more drawn to but there are no weak tales here and I suspect that if you ask a group of readers each person will have a different list of favourites.
This is a generous collection of short stories and so rather than try to describe them all, here is a brief outline of those that particularly stood out for me;
The Dala Horse is a post apocalyptic Scandinavian fairytale, beautifully atmospheric and whimsical but as with the best folklore it is also dark and disturbing. Goblin Lake also has a fairytale feel to it and invites the reader to imagine what they would choose in the same situation, it reminded me somehow of Hans Christian Andersen's stories. Lovers of alien stories will be well satisfied too, From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled is an extraordinarily well crafted story, it simultaneously satisfied me as a beautifully told complete short story and left me wanting to read more about this strange world. Passage of Earth is truly chilling, I really enjoyed this one but it's also one of the most disturbing stories I've read in a long time. If I was really pushed to picked a favourite I'd be torn between Of Finest Scarlet was Her Gown which gives the collection its title and is a witty, richly imagined trip to hell, and Tawny Petticoats - if Dickens did SF, a bawdy, funny and yet thought provoking yarn.
This really is a smörgåsbord of a short story collection taking the reader from the Mesozoic era, to Russia, Hell, far off planets, an alternative Europe and dystopian worlds controlled by non humans. It's the perfect taster to Michael Swanwick's writing, it enthralled me and kept me awake at night thinking and left me wanting to read more.
Thanks to the publishers for my copy, received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Not So Much, Said the Cat is published by Tachyon Publications and is out now.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Book Review - Himself by Jess Kidd

'When Mahony returns to Mulderrig, a speck of a place on Ireland's west coast, he brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the lies of his past.
No one - living or dead - will tell Mahony what happened to the teenage mother who abandoned him as a baby, despite his certainty that more than one of the villagers knows the sinister truth'

Make a note right now of Jess Kidd's name because I predict this is one debut author destined for great things. Himself is an extraordinary book, a melting pot of different genres that combine to form something truly special. Kidd is able to use words to create a symphony, there were passages so beautifully written I had to read them again.Himself is a book that manages to be funny, dark, magical, brutal, tender and tense. The book opens with a prologue, it is 1950 and a young mother is viciously murdered before her killer turns his attention to her infant son. However, the baby is nowhere to be seen... Most of the action in the subsequent story takes place in 1976, with occasional flashbacks to the past. The 'Himself' of the title is Mahoney who has returned to Mulderrig, a tiny village in Ireland and the place of his birth to discover the truth about what happened to his mother, Orla. Mulderrig may be small but it is filled with vibrant characters - both living and dead. Jess Kidd's writing is so brilliant because she not only tells an intricate, thrilling tale but she has also created an unforgettable cast, from Mahoney himself, so handsome that, 'with looks like that, the fella is either a poet or a gobshite, with the long hair and the leather jacket and the walk on it.’ to Bridget Doosey, housekeeper for the vicarage although she 'holds no truck with the relentless drudgery of housework or the moral authority of Catholic priests. She sees both as unnecessary evils but stalwartly continues in her employment in order to support her roving pride of felines. And believing in honesty, Bridget will tell anyone who listens that she is daily destroyed with the effort of being polite to Father Quinn, who, after all, is nothing but a gobdaw in a black suit.' and best of all, Mrs Cauley, an octogenarian former actress who spends most of her days in her bed surrounded by her dusty labyrinth of books and with Johnnie, the ghost of her fiance always nearby. Mrs Cauley may be ancient but she is cunning, sharp-witted and resourceful. She comes up with a plan to find out what happened to Orla, ' And to our investigation.’ Mrs Cauley downs her drink in one, her eyes hardly watering. She grins, wickedly. ‘And to the straight-up joy of getting Mulderrig’s bollocks in a twist.’'
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is a whimsical story set in a place akin to Glocca Morra but Mulderrig is a far darker place. This is a place of illicit sex and brutal murders, a village where a young woman's disappearance is ignored because she was considered a troublemaker, a place where the spirits are angry and will have their say. I absolutely loved the magical realism in Himself, for me it raised an already superb story into something unique and unforgettable. From the spring that appears in the library of the parochial house (where a 'thick layer of frogs seethe in heathen ecstasy where the hearthrug used to be.') to the priest who haunts a commode to the portents - soot pouring out of fireplaces, spiders, rats, badgers and voles running amok through the village - Himself is a completely wonderful mix of a compelling, often bleak mystery, a poignant story of needing to understand, of learning to trust and to love, and a completely bonkers (in a good way) supernatural tale with elements of myth and folklore.
There is a tempting suggestion near the end that there may be more to come from Mulderrig, I hope I'm right but in the meantime I urge you to read this book. Jess Kidd has written a book that will stay with me for the longest time, I can't wait to read more.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my advance copy, received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Himself is published by Canongate and will be released in the UK on 27th October.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review - In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings

I was late to the party with this one which is ridiculous when you consider Orenda Books are rapidly becoming one of my favourite publishers and I kept reading scores of glowing reviews. Still, better late than never and seeing how much of the book is set in Cornwall perhaps it was fitting that I read most of it while on holiday in the county.
The book begins with a haunting and mysterious prologue, a perfect amuse-bouche before the outstanding main course which begins with the immediate aftermath of loss. Bella's mother has died and she has returned to her family home with her husband. It quickly becomes apparent that Bella had an unusual upbringing with an overbearing mother, Elaine and distant father, Henry. Both Bella and Henry are lost without Elaine who was clearly the driving influence within their family but seem unable to comfort one another. It takes Henry's shocking confession of a secret hidden for decades for Bella to finally start to shake of the shackles of both her claustrophobic childhood and oppressive marriage and she flees to Cornwall where she slowly learns the truth about her past and has to come to terms with the realisation that not only was she living a lie but that the truth doesn't come with a magic wand that makes everything right. This is what makes In Her Wake such a superlative book. The mystery of Bella's past alone is a gripping story but it's the familial relationships portrayed that make this such a beautiful and poignant book. Jennings acknowledges that learning the truth doesn't mean an automatic happy ending and what you wish for can also be what you fear. Relationships and reunions are complicated and fragile, this is no Disneyfied story where everything falls into place, people are tentative, often wrong-footed and completely believable. Bella herself is a character who could so easily have been one dimensional, the wronged victim who we should feel only pity for, who sleepwalked from the controlling influence of her mother to that of her husband. Jennings, though has written a far more nuanced character. Although Bella is undoubtedly vulnerable she is also stubborn, inventive, frustrating, untruthful and compassionate. The truth itself is revealed gradually and I particularly enjoyed how Jennings employs different devices to explain what happened; from Bella's flashbacks, through the memories of others and chapters set in the past focused on Elaine and David. We are just given glimpses of what actually occurred though, scattered jigsaw pieces that only come together near the end of the book and not without a few twists.
In Her Wake is an outstanding book that combines a superb psychological thriller with a thoughtful and searingly honest look at family relationships and the deep need to understand who you are. That it's also written with such beautiful prose and with breathtaking descriptions of the Cornish scenery makes this a book that deserves every plaudit that comes its way.
In Her Wake is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review - What Remains of Me by A.L. Gaylin

People don't need to know you're a murderer.
They just have to think you could be...

What Remains of Me is a psychological suspense novel, the action shifts between events leading up to the conviction of teenager Kelly Lund for the murder of Hollywood director, John McFadden in 1980 and the aftermath of the murder of his closest friend, Sterling Marshall in 2014 when Kelly, five years out of prison and married to Marshall's son looks to be the main suspect again. Gradually secrets and lies are revealed until the truth about both murders is uncovered.
At first it seems as if both cases are cut and dried, convicted of the first murder and with strong evidence that she also committed the second, I wondered if What Remains of Me was going to be less of a whodunnit and more of a howshedunnit. Once it became apparent that there was much more to this story (or stories) I was hooked. The scenes set in 1980s Hollywood brought to mind a dark Brat Pack movie, bored rich teenagers befriend an outsider, skip school to take drugs and act up because their home life isn't as perfect as it would appear at first. The present day storyline is equally well written and it's a credit to the author that I cared about these characters and what happened to them, particularly the central protagonist Kelly who is somewhat of an enigma. Do we pity her or condemn her? Gaylin has constructed a narrative that is shocking, sympathetic and a believable exposé of celebrity culture and the industry that feeds off it. This is a book of layers and twists, it kept me guessing and managed to surprise me a few times as the truth about the families whose lives have become intertwined is gradually revealed. The premise of two connected mysterious separated by decades is superbly executed and this is a really enjoyable, "just one more chapter then I'll go to sleep" sort of book.  I do enjoy stories with split narratives, especially when the contemporary and historical work harmoniously. What Remains of Me is one of those books and I highly recommend it.
Many thanks to the publishers, Arrow for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review. What Remains of Me will be published in the UK on 1st December 2016 and can be downloaded to Kindles now.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Book Review - Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave.

Set mostly in London during the Blitz and a besieged Malta, Everyone Brave is Forgiven takes a magnifying lens to the lives of a small group of friends set against the world in turmoil. The novel opens at the start of WW2, Mary North, privileged daughter of a MP leaves her finishing school prematurely to enlist. Imagining she will be put to work as a spy she is initially disappointed to be assigned work as a teacher in a primary school. She does what all indomitable British gals should do though and gets on with it then discovers that she actually enjoys the job and builds a rapport with the children, particularly a black boy called Zachary. Meanwhile Tom and Alistair are room mates in a London garret, trading witticisms, making jam and performing taxidermy on their deceased pet cat. Alistair, an art restorer at the Tate has decided to enlist but Tom, a civil servant in charge of a school district, says he is going to stay at home, "But you’ve said it often: we can’t let them make us into barbarians . Someone must stay behind who understands how to put it all back together."
 At first the story seems light but with our benefit of hindsight there is always a sense of foreboding at what is to come. In training Alistair is suddenly and violently reminded of the truth of war. A further hint of some of the darkness to follow comes when the children are evacuated, and Zachary, already in no doubts as to his place at the very bottom of society is horribly bullied and neglected in the country. (The 'n' word is used liberally throughout the novel, along with its scarcely less acceptable cousin, negro. With my 21st Century sensibilities it felt wrong to be reading these words but of course they were common vernacular at the time, and in a historical novel it would be dishonest to omit them.)
Mary meets Tom when she goes to demand another job working with the children not evacuated for various reasons,
'It had been this way for half her class: the countryside had not wanted them. The others had been brought back to London simply because their parents missed them,'
- and they fall in love. They form a foursome on a night out with Alistair, recently evacuated and clearly showing signs of what we now recognise as PTSD, and Mary's friend Hilda. As the Blitz begins, Alistair and Mary are attracted to one another but Mary decides to stay loyal to Tom. Alistair is posted to Malta, soon to be an island under yet another long and deathly siege. We are reminded that war is not just brutal because of bullets and bombs. Starvation, lack of medical care, isolation and boredom all contributed to a terrible toll on the troops who were mostly young men ripped from their normal lives. Meanwhile as the bombs rain down nightly on London, destroying buildings, bodies and hope, the lives of Mary, Tom and Hilda are also irrevocably changed. Much is written of the stoicism of the civilians during the Blitz but perhaps the visceral truth is sometimes skipped over. Here it is acknowledged that the sheer horror drove people to take steps to alleviate the pain, both mental and physical. That needing to be numb was sometimes the only way a person could cope, and that it is no less brave, no less heroic to make bad decisions when faced with what feels like unrelenting misery. The novel ends before the war but the worst of the Blitz is over, America has entered the conflict and there is again the tentative hope reemerging that lives can be patched, that a sense of normality can be regained, 'It was an air one might still breathe, if everyone forgiven was brave.'
World War 2 is of course a well trodden fictional path but when the writing is of this quality there is always room for more. This was a book I both savoured and devoured. One of those books where I would have to reread a passage, not for clarity but because the writing deserved to be appreciated again.
'Aside from the brooms there was silence. London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses. How hadn’t she noticed this? The ageless mechanism of the city’s renewal had faltered. Women only waited now, and swept. Rope cordons ringed unexploded ordnance. Chalk crosses marked the doors that the rescue crews had not yet opened. Mary thought of the mortuaries with their unclaimed dead lying in senseless paragraphs, line after line with an X against each body in the ledger. The point to which she had hurried at the start of the war was gone now, along with all fixed points. Now X marked only the unexploded, the unexamined, the unconsoled. One waited – with the shuffling rhythm of brooms - for some inexplicit resurrection.'
Chris Cleave has written a novel that is so evocatively descriptive I was completely immersed. It is in turns witty, achingly sad, and tense and brutal. The characters are more than words on a page, they are richly developed people, with all their insecurities and flaws. For a short time I was concerned that Mary was going to be given the white saviour role but thankfully Cleave resisted this, understanding that historical racism can't and shouldn't be solved by one character in a book. Instead she is often the conscience of a novel that also examines the class society and gender roles of the time. I've not read any of the his previous books - yet -but I have a feeling I've discovered a new favourite author. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is easily one of the best books I've read this year.

Many thanks to the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton for my copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, received from Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Book Review - Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus

A man with a consuming addiction. A woman who talks to God. And the secret connection that could destroy them both… Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex-trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins. A complex, page-turning psychological thriller, riddled with twists and turns, Epiphany Jones is also a superb dark comedy with a powerful emotional core.

Epiphany Jones is not an easy book to read. This isn't a criticism but the subject matter means there's dark then there's Epiphany Jones dark. So it was a book that took me a while to read, every so often I had to leave it for a bit to process my thoughts. The main protagonists in the book, Jerry and the eponymous Epiphany aren't straightforward characters, they are multifaceted, frequently unsympathetic and hard to like. Jerry has a serious porn addiction, the story is told through his voice and he is an unreliable narrator who has suffered hallucinations (his figments) since the death of his younger sister. At first he appears to be violently misogynistic and it is a testament to the author's writing that as more is gradually revealed about Jerry's past I came to not only sympathise with him but to actively root for him as the 'hero' of the book. Epiphany is a fascinating character, I don't want to give too much away here but she is a brutal yet vulnerable enigma and for me the novel is at its strongest when she appears.
Jerry is forced to go on the run after his colleague is murdered (a camera tripod through the eye) and he is prime suspect. Epiphany holds the key to his proving his innocence but she demands his help first and he is drawn into a murky world of violence, blackmail and child sex trafficking. It is the child abuse that makes this book hard to read, the author pulls no punches. His writing is searingly honest which given the hideous subject matter really should be applauded. It would not be right to gloss over such heinous crimes and Grothaus ensures the abuse is described as horrifically as it should be. However, the book is still darkly comic at times, particularly when the author uses razor sharp wit in exposing the superficiality of Hollywood and the cult of celebrity. Epiphany Jones began as I book I wasn't sure I'd like, as the layers of secrets and lies were stripped away I found myself drawn in - albeit needing to take a break occasionally - and by the denouement I was in unable to put down territory. It's an extraordinary book, raw, brave and does what fiction at it's best can do - it shines a light on those dark recesses of society and forces us to confront the truth that behind the glamour is often something far more sordid and seedy. It's a book that will stay with me for a long time.
Epiphany Jones is published by Orenda Books and is available in the UK now. Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Book Review - The Evolution of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty

The Evolution of Fear is Paul E. Hardisty's second novel featuring South African former soldier Claymore Straker following the CWA Awards New Blood Dagger nominated The Abrupt Physics of Dying. Straker is now a fugitive, both from the law as a suspected Islamic terrorist and murderer and from shadier characters after revenge. The novel starts with him hiding out in a cottage in Cornwall, separated again from his lover, journalist Rania. Hardisty doesn't seem to write slow burning novels and so like the first book we are soon thrust into the action as Claymore believes he has been betrayed and once again finds his life in danger, he is forced to flee, first to Istanbul and later to Cyprus. The Evolution of Fear is an eco thriller again, this time the action centres around land developments and the conservation of turtles. While it wouldn't be unfair to say the book contains a few thriller tropes - the physically and psychologically damaged hero who seems to be able to keep going despite being badly hurt; the women (Rania and new character Dr Hope Bachmann) though intelligent and courageous are still also there as beautiful women and therefore objects of desire for the male characters, and Rania does have a bit of the Princess Peach about her, the perpetual kidnap victim - however, Hardisty writes so well that it's easy to see past them. Make no mistake this is no quick and easy read, taking in as it does international politics, conservation, corruption, PTSD, war crimes, justice and retribution. With such a broad ranging and complex story it's imperative that you trust the author and you are never in any doubt that Hardisty has done his research. It's believable then but also beautifully written despite often being brutal and uncompromising. There is a powerful, almost Lear-esque scene near the beginning of the book where Straker is on a boat in a storm where the author juxtaposes the external elements and the chaotic weather system of his mind as he recalls not just the events in Yemen that led to his separation from Rania and the loss of his hand but also his earlier life in Angola and his involvement in a brutal massacre there,
"Clay stood a moment, bucket hanging in hand, feet planted wide against the roll, water sloshing around his thighs, tilted his head back and stared up into the swirling sky. Then he opened his mouth wide and screamed above the wind, howling his defiance."
With The Evolution of Fear Hardisty has written a book that doesn't sacrifice action for realism or truth for thrills, it's an exhilarating , confident and intelligent book that leaves its readers thinking and questioning what they think they know. I'm very pleased to see that there will be more from Clay Straker in Reconciliation of the Dead, due to be published in 2017.
Many thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Evolution of Fear received in return for my honest review.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Book Review - The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam

Anwar told me that it wasn't until he almost died that he realised he needed to find the woman he had once loved. I've thought about that a lot in the last few years, that if Anwar hadn't worked on that building site, he might never have gone looking for Megna, and if he hadn't done that, I might still be in the dark about my past. I've only ever been a hair away from being utterly alone in the world, Elijah, and it was Anwar who shone a light where once there was only darkness.'

The Bones of Grace.

It is the story of Zubaida, and her search for herself.

It is a story she tells for Elijah, the love of her life.

It tells the story of Anwar, the link in Zubaida's broken chain.

Woven within these tales are the stories of a whale and a ship; a piano and a lost boy.

This is the story of love itself

 This is the third of Tahmima Anam's three generation trilogy set in Bangladesh, following on from A Golden Age, and The Good Muslim. It is written mostly as a narrative as Zubaida, a paleontologist, tries to explain her actions to Elijah after their affair is over. The story starts in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Elijah and Zubaida first meet before moving briefly to an archeological dig in Pakistan. Zubaida is part of a team hoping to excavate the bones of the 'walking whale', Ambulocetus natans but the dig ends in tragedy and she returns to Bangladesh where, despite her misgivings, she marries her childhood friend, Rashid. She soon realises her mistake and seeks to find some purpose to her life and some respite from her unhappy marriage through her job interviewing mistreated workers at a yard taking apart ships and ends up reunited with Elijah. Their romance though isn't destined to run smoothly, her bond, however reluctant, with Rashid,  and a growing obsession with her biological roots leads to tension within all her relationships.
The form of the novel allows Anam to tell a meandering story as Zubaida hints at events and tragedies to come, and characters are introduced gradually before being fleshed out later. Anwar is a peculiarity in the book though, he is allowed to tell his own story. This interrupts the flow of the book a little but is an absorbing tale in it's own right and events later in the book clarify his story further so despite my misgivings I did find it mostly worked despite initially feeling a little jarred by its inclusion.
Zubaida herself is not always an easy character to like, the structure of the novel makes her seem self obsessed but I gave her the benefit of the doubt, as the narrative is a sort of love letter to Elijah so it's inevitable that it will be mostly inwardly focused on her thoughts and feelings. The other characters (including Mo, the most sympathetic character in the novel) are seen through Zubaida's eyes so are necessarily less rounded, we are only seeing her view of them after all. 
Anam has created a novel that looks honestly at cultural history, family ties, religion, honour, and secrets, it is both intimate and expansive, achingly sad yet insightfully witty. Reading the book made me curious to learn more and I found myself looking up facts about Bangladesh's history and paleontology. Literature at its best opens doors and with The Bones of Grace Tahmima Anam does just that. 

 Thanks to the author and publishers for my ARC received through Netgalley. The Bones of Grace will be published in the UK on 5th May 2016 by Canongate.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Book Review - The Body on the Doorstep by AJ Mackenzie

"The year is 1796. It is midnight on Romney Marsh, in the darkness of a new moon. Smugglers’ boats bring their illicit cargoes of brandy and tobacco from France to land on the beaches of the Channel coast. Suddenly, shots ring out in the night. The rector of St Mary in the Marsh opens his door to find a young man dying on his doorstep.

The man lives long enough to utter four words. Tell Peter…mark…trace.

What do those four words mean? Who is the young man? Where did he come from, and who killed him? Why, five minutes later, was a Customs officer shot and killed out on the Marsh? And who are the mysterious group of smugglers known as the Twelve Apostles, and where does their allegiance lie? When the rector investigates, aided by his faithful allies Mrs Amelia Chaytor, a local widow, and the young painter JMW Turner, he quickly finds himself involved in a world of smuggling, espionage...and danger."

This is the first book in a promised Romney Marsh Mysteries series, written by AJ Mackenzie, the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel,
an Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife team of writers and historians. I love discovering debut authors and new series, to have both combined and in such an enjoyable book as The Body on the Doorstep is a real treat. Books featuring amateur sleuths are perennially popular and the pairing in The Body on the Doorstep are welcome additions to the genre. Reverend Hardcastle is an alcoholic rector with a colourful past, and Amelia Chaytor, a widow living in the village who turns out to be far braver, sharper and less easily shocked than a woman of her time was expected to be.
Despite being set during a much earlier period I was reminded somewhat of John Buchan's Richard Hannay  books, perhaps because it is imbued with the same sense of adventure and with characters that may not be all they seem. As with Buchan's books the landscape, in this case Romney Marsh, plays an important role in the plot.
Whilst there is always going to be some artistic license in a work of fiction the plot (written by historians of course) feels credible,  not necessarily easy in a book that features smugglers, spying, rumours of a French invasion and the artist JWM Turner!
I stayed up late last night (actually early this morning) to finish The Body on the Doorstep and I know if the next book in the series had been published I would be reading that now. I'll have to look forward to it but in the meantime thoroughly recommend this to all, particularly if you enjoy historical mysteries.

The Body on the Doorstep will be published by Zaffre on 21st April 2016. Many thanks to the authors and publishers for my ARC received through NetGalley.