|THE SHINING GIRLS
Lauren Beukes (laurenbeukes.com)
When Harper Curtis murders an old woman, he finds the key to a house to which he instinctively knows the way. In the bedroom of the house he finds the names of girls scratched on the walls next to mementoes and trophies, threads linking them together in an intricate web. Harper is a murderer, and these are his shining girls, spread across time, awaiting his visit. Kirby Mazrachi is one of these girls, the only one to survive Harper’s attack. Obsessed with her assailant, Kirby begins to look for similar cases and discovers the impossible: she was attacked by a man who cannot possibly exist. Her investigations bring her to the killer’s attention, and now Harper is back to complete the circle.
I’m always on the lookout for novels that bring a fresh new perspective to often tired old genres. In the case of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, the tired old genre is the serial killer novel; the biggest problem with her fresh perspective – a time travelling serial killer – is that it’s extremely difficult to pull off well and very easy to mess up completely. Fortunately for us readers, Beukes has taken the road less-travelled and produced a fresh-voiced crime/science fiction crossover that is, to put it succinctly, stunning.
The action takes place in and around the city of Chicago, and spans various periods from 1931 to 1993. Beukes, a native South African, captures the soul of the city perfectly and makes it one of the few constants, one of the few things we can rely on not to shift beneath our feet, in an otherwise twisted and ever-surprising narrative. Harper Curtis, the antagonist of the piece, and in some ways its central character, is a nasty piece of work, a man driven by the House, or more correctly, by the list and the trophies he finds in the bedroom of that house. His nemesis, the young Kirby, is damaged and obsessed, determined to find the man who tried to kill her and exact her revenge, whatever the cost. At times extremely unlikeable, Kirby still gives the reader someone to rally behind, if only because she is a better alternative than the despicable Harper upon whom to shower our sympathies.
The time travel aspects of the novel are introduced early in the story, so it is immediately obvious that this is no straightforward serial killer novel. As the story progresses, it becomes clear just how many strands there are to this narrative, and how difficult it must have been to get on paper without any massive holes in the various timelines or logic. As a result, later chapters are full of Easter Eggs and pleasant surprises for the careful and attentive reader. It’s easy to see that plotting was a long and laborious process, but it pays off in spades: the reader is never sure what to expect next, and right down to the book’s epilogue, Beukes manages to hold secrets back from us that, when slotted into place, complete the picture as neatly as the final, central piece of any jigsaw puzzle.
The Shining Girls is more than just cleverness and gimmicks, though. The time travel aspects serve the central storyline, rather than the other way around. At its core, the novel is a crime thriller and while the time travel adds an extra – if you’ll pardon the pun – dimension to the overall experience, it still provides a satisfying read for fans of the serial killer genre. With the introduction of sportswriter Dan, Beukes has also created the possibility, should she wish to hang around the thriller scene for awhile, of an on-going series with a recurring character (and let’s face it, stranger things have happened).
Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).
A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.
It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.
For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.
For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.
For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.
In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.
Yours most sincerely,
Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)
£9.99The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.
What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.
|DREAMS AND SHADOWS
C. Robert Cargill
£14.99As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.
|RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)
£12.99When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.
As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.
Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.
OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.
Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.
Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.
|THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES
Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)
£14.99Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.
Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.
Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
£16.99One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.
White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.
A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.
|WEB OF THE CITY
Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)
Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)
£7.99Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.
Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.
The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.
Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)
Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)
£14.99Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.
The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.
Today sees the publication, in paperback, of The Twelve, the second part of Justin Cronin’s epic Passage trilogy. To celebrate the occasion, we have a hardcover copy of the novel, signed by the author, to give away to one lucky visitor, thanks to the book’s publisher, Orion Books.
To be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is post a comment containing the answer to the question below, before midnight (GMT) on Thursday 9th May. I will select one commenter at random on the morning of Friday 10th May and will be in touch to arrange shipment shortly thereafter.
Question: Bernard Kittridge makes an appearance early in The Twelve. By what nickname is he better known to the world?
If you need a helping hand, be sure to check out Justin Cronin reading an excerpt from the book here.
Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
It is October 1888 and the people of London are already reeling from the series of murders committed by the man who has styled himself “Jack the Ripper”. When the rotting torso of a young woman is found in the vault of the building site that will eventually become New Scotland Yard, the immediate assumption is that it belongs to yet another victim of the Ripper. But police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond doesn’t agree – this is a much colder killer, without the fiery passion that defines Jack’s kills. As more body parts – from this victim and others – wash up on the banks of the Thames, panic sets in across the metropolis and Bond finds himself joining forces with a mysterious Italian Jesuit and an unwashed immigrant with an unwanted “gift” in an attempt to find and stop this new killer.
Pinborough takes, as the starting point for her latest novel, a series of unsolved murders that occurred in London around the same time that Jack the Ripper was operating, and a handful of historical figures who would likely have been involved in their investigation. At the centre we find Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who plays both detective and biographer in this distinctly Holmesian tale. Bond is an insomniac who has found solace in the opium dens of Whitechapel and beyond. It is here, in the guise of a stranger who watches the addicts as they dream, that he believes he has found a connection to the murders. When Bond follows the man, he finds himself drawn into a search for the killer that is at odds with his role as Police Surgeon but which, he quickly realises, might be the only chance they have of catching this man before any more young women die at his hands.
Told, in the main, from the point of view of Bond, Pinborough also intersperses third-person narratives focusing on some of the other key players, as well as newspaper clippings from the period to create an engaging – moreish, even – read. Impeccable research and wonderful narrative styling combine to place the reader in the centre of the melting pot that was London towards the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing to ignore the more famous Ripper murders in favour of the lesser-known Thames Torso murders, Pinborough has given herself some room for manoeuvre and sets Mayhem apart from countless other novels set in the same period. The focus on Thomas Bond allows the Ripper murders to make a cameo appearance – Bond was involved in their investigation – and the author finds a perfect balance that allows them to become landmarks for the reader without ever becoming the focus of the story.
For the first half of the novel, Mayhem reads like a straightforward mystery novel with more than a little influence from Conan Doyle. At this stage, anyone and everyone is a suspect, and Pinborough introduces one character after another who may have had a hand in the murder and dismemberment of these women. Towards the middle portion, there is a slight shift; as we learn the identity of the killer, our suspicions change from the “did he do it?” to the less-tangible “what are his motives for being involved?”. It’s a deft piece of writing that leaves the reader satisfied that the who was never really important and, if anything, manages to increase the suspense we encounter from this point onwards. At this point, too, a supernatural element creeps into the story, the transition from “crime” to “horror” made all the more palatable by virtue of the fact that we see it through the eyes of Thomas Bond, a man of science faced with something he cannot explain.
Mayhem is the first in a series of books featuring Dr Bond. Instantly likeable, despite his flaws, he’s the perfect leading man. As one of the lesser-known members of the Ripper investigation team, Pinborough has the freedom to tweak his personality to suit her dark plots (for which she apologises in her short but informative Preface), safe in the knowledge that the majority of readers will be meeting the man for the first time, without the preconceptions that they might bring to, say, Frederick Abberline. It is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be looking forward to 2015’s Murder following their first encounter with Dr Bond.
Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is the perfect mix of historical fact and fiction, Caleb Carr with a supernatural twist. Careful plotting, spot-on pacing and a sharp ear for the language of the period combine to make the reader want to come back for more. The use of the Ripper murders to provide context, without ever detracting from the importance of the Thames Torso murders, is the perfect device to place the reader in the middle of the smog-filled London of the late 1880s. Mayhem is a novel that obliterates genre boundaries, and is a must-read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, of the various legends of Jack the Ripper, and of crime and horror fiction in general. It’s a major showcase for the talents of Sarah Pinborough, who proves, once again, that she deserves a spot on everyone’s must-read list.
|NO WAY BACK
Matthew Klein (matthewklein.org)
Jim Thane is a restart executive, a Silicon Valley veteran who specialises in taking on failing companies and turning them around, making them profitable. Jim’s latest assignment has taken him to the oppressive heat of Florida, where Tao Software needs his specialist skills. Within days, Jim has discovered that someone has been embezzling – to the tune of three million dollars – from the company, and that the previous CEO was involved with a very unsavoury crowd. Caught between the FBI and the Russian mob, Jim quickly discovers the real reason he was given this job and just how much danger comes as part of the package.
On Monday morning, at one minute past nine o’clock, I sit in a Florida parking lot counting cars.
It’s an old trick, the easiest way to take a company’s pulse: arrive at the beginning of the business day – on the dot – and see how many employees have bothered to show up. You can tell a lot about a company from its parking lot.
No Way Back has the feel of two different novels glued together in the middle. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the transition from one to the other is much less jarring than that statement might lead you to believe. At the centre of the story is its narrator, Jim Thane, a Silicon Valley veteran who now specialises in rescuing or salvaging failing technology companies. When the story opens, Jim has been clean for two years, but spent most of the previous decade drinking, taking meth and paying high-class prostitutes for sex. Somewhere in that deep and distant past, a past of which he is now extremely ashamed, he was responsible for the death of his only son, who drowned in the bath whilst in Jim’s care. This tragedy has forced a wedge between Jim and his wife, and the tension between them is palpable in the numerous scenes they share.
The first half or so of the book concerns Jim’s efforts to turn Tao Software around. The company haven’t made any money for years, mainly because they have nothing to sell – their only product is very much still in development and no-one seems to have thought about how, or to whom, they might sell it anyway. Klein’s background in the industry provides him with plenty of material, and it’s often presented in a blackly humourous way that skewers both the industry and the individuals that work within it. As someone who has been making a living in software development for close to fifteen years, I found it cut very close to the bone, at once perfectly accurate and laugh-out-loud funny. With little more than the occasional nod to the threat that Jim will ultimately face, Klein still manages to make this first section of the novel extremely readable and strangely exciting. Which, given the novel’s corporate setting, is something to shout about.
The trouble starts on a Tuesday afternoon in September.
As the second section of the novel begins, Klein shifts up a couple of gears and brings the threat into the forefront of the narrative, taking Jim completely out of his comfort zone. As the pressure builds, Jim starts slipping into old habits, and when he discovers that his neighbours are watching his house, he starts realise that nothing is quite what it seems. Tension mounts – along with the body count – until the shock ending, one of only many twists and turns the reader will encounter along the way. For me, this final twist was one too far, and raised as many questions about the preceding narrative as it answered. Suddenly things that we had taken for granted no longer made any sense. While it by no means ruined the novel for me, it left me feeling slightly cheated and a little bit flat.
Jim Thane is a character that the reader will love to hate; his current job and his horrible past combine to leave very few likeable qualities, and yet we still feel sorry for him when we see how he is treated by his wife, or how his life begins to fall apart at the seams as he digs into Tao Software’s history. That said, he’s an engaging narrator and often brings some comic relief to otherwise tense situations. The combination of thoroughly unpleasant central character and corporate subject matter should make No Way Back the ultimate snooze-fest, but what we find is the complete opposite: engaging and entertaining, we are compelled to keep going, as much to see if Jim can turn the company’s fortunes around, as to find out what’s happening with the Russian mob.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. A slightly misjudged ending is the only thing holding it back from “excellent”. There is a ready-made audience in Klein’s peers in the software industry, or anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment, but No Way Back will also have a much wider appeal and should be perfect for anyone who likes their thrillers to have a slow build and an ending that packs a punch.
|THE KILLING POOL
Jonathan Cape (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)
Detective Chief Inspector Billy McCartney is part of Merseyside Police’s Drug Squad, his focus currently on the Rozaki brothers who have a monopoly on Liverpool’s heroin trade. When McCartney’s informant, the youngest of the Rozaki brothers is found dead and dismembered in a park, McCartney knows he has limited time before full scale war breaks out in the city. Hiding the identity of the body, McCartney starts to look into the young man’s death and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As he digs, he finds connections to older crimes, other Drug Squad operations that have a direct and personal impact on him, and which are coming back to haunt him as his career, and his life, seem to be falling apart at the seams.
Kevin Sampson’s ninth novel, the first of a series of novels featuring DCI Billy McCartney, takes us to a dark and unsavoury side of Liverpool completely at odds with the city’s revamped look and one-time European Capital of Culture status. It’s a side of the city that we’re unlikely to see in any brochures: a melting pot of crime and drug trafficking that has changed little over the almost thirty year period that the novel covers. Against this background, Sampson introduces us to a cast of police and criminals where the dividing line between “good” and “evil” is much more subtle than whether the person carries a badge.
The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a handful of key characters. For the most part, we find ourselves in the head of McCartney, but other characters get the chance to stick their oar in from time to time, giving us a rounder, more complete view of what’s going on than we might have got from a more traditional first person narrative, while providing a deeper understanding of these characters than we might have received from a third-person narrative. For the most part, the characters are living, breathing people, each with a unique voice, and distinctive vocal tics. There are others, however, perhaps deliberately, who feel a little two-dimensional, caricatures of stereotypes; I’m thinking mainly of Alfie Manners here, a sexist, racist policeman whose attitudes and outlooks don’t change at all in the twenty-eight years between the time we first meet him and the main present-day setting of the story. He’s a dinosaur, but he is a known entity, a character we have seen before and from whom we know what to expect.
McCartney is the polar opposite, and is the perfect character to keep us coming back for more. A drug user himself, McCartney harbours a grudge against his superior officer for a perceived slight during an operation fifteen years earlier. Now, as things start to come to a head, McCartney finds himself butting heads with that same officer, Hubert Hodge, once more. What are the man’s motives? Can he be trusted? These are questions to which the reader has no answer, despite the fact that we have more insight into Hodge than McCartney ever could. The drug use and McCartney’s past leave the reader unsure where even his loyalties lie, but he has a certain quality that makes us want to trust him, makes us hope that he will turn out to be a good guy when everything is said and done.
What David Peace did for the West Yorkshire Constabulary of the late seventies and early eighties, and James Ellroy did for the Los Angeles Police Department of the forties and fifties, so Kevin Sampson does for the Merseyside Police of the early eighties through to the present day. At once a tale of crime and drugs, The Killing Pool is also an examination of the widespread police corruption that allows the evil to not only exist, but to thrive in one of the UK’s most important industrial and tourist centres. In Hubert Hodge, Sampson presents modern day England’s answer to Dudley Smith – a man of such moral ambiguity, with so much power, and the uncanny ability to cover his own tracks that it is impossible to know what he is capable of, and whether he should be trusted. While he plays a key role in the novel, he spends most of it lurking at the edges of the action, and of our consciousness. He is, for this reader at least, the crowning glory of a rock-solid example of what British crime fiction can and should be.
The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.
|SEAL TEAM 666
Weston Ochse (weston-ochse.blogspot.co.uk)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Four weeks from completion, Jack Walker is pulled from his Navy SEAL training on Coronado Island, and assigned to SEAL Team 666. Highly classified and known to only a few key people, the five-man team which specialises in operations against supernatural threats has just lost its sniper; Walker’s background makes him the ideal candidate for replacement. Within hours he finds himself geared up and on his first mission. What they find in San Francisco’s Chinatown – a sweatshop where women whose mouths have been sewn closed are making suits out of tattooed human skin – is the first piece in a puzzle which sets the team on the trail of an army of demons who have the whole world in their sights.
Weston Ochse will be a name familiar to many frequenters of the horror fiction scene, though SEAL Team 666 sees his first commercial publication on these shores. The book is a straightforward mix of supernatural horror and military action that works surprisingly well, despite a couple of attempts to shoehorn more military jargon than is really necessary into the narrative. The premise is a simple one: military threats are not the only danger that the US faces on a daily basis. Since before the country was formed, a small team – five men and one dog – has protected its citizens from any number of supernatural threats, pitted against demons, homunculi and all things evil. In the modern US military structure, this team is made up of the best of the best, an elite unit within the Navy SEALs.
Ochse throws us into the middle of the action from the first blistering page, as we join the team on a mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan (yes, that mission). From there, we’re barely allowed time to breathe as we follow the team through one mission after the next, as they track down the man behind these suits made of human skin. Amongst all the action, though, the author finds time to flesh out the characters, and we learn something about the background of each so that they are more than just gung-ho paper cut-outs. This is done in such a way that it never impacts on the story, never slows things down or pulls the reader out of the moment, so that it feels natural and we never get the sense that the author is cramming important information in that we might need to remember later. Unfortunately (and this is really my only criticism of the novel), the same can’t be said for the technical information and military jargon that Ochse has picked up along the way and has presumably felt loathe to part with in subsequent drafts:
As he broke the Stoner down, he removed the rotating bolt carrier group. It was virtually the same as the piece-of-shit M16, which fired 5.56mm, but the Stoner was bored for 7.62mm as opposed to the 12.7mm of the Barrett. And also like the M16 and the AR15, the Stoner used a gas-impingement system to automatically move the bolt back and forth, enabling semiautomatic fire down the twenty-inch barrel. Rather than the regular floating barrel, the Stoner was reworked to incorporate the URX II Picatiny-Weaver Rail System, allowing for better application of any mounted hardware such as laser sights, telescopic sights, reflexive sights, tactical lights, and forward grips.
Impressive as this is, it doesn’t really add much to the story and serves only to interrupt the flow of the otherwise fast-paced narrative. Fortunately, instances of this are few and far between and by the second half of the novel, Ochse has mostly ditched them altogether.
That complaint aside, it’s a well-written and attention-grabbing piece of fiction. Ochse’s (it’s pronounced “oaks”, for anyone currently struggling with it) history with the horror genre serves him well, as he creates a world that is at once horrific and terrifyingly believable. The introduction of a military force whose job is to combat supernatural threats is by no means original, but the story and the world combine to set SEAL Team 666 apart from the vast majority of its predecessors. The fact that the supernatural elements only exist on one side of the fence also makes for a pleasant change. With the exception of some holy water, the Americans rely on good old-fashioned force and superior firepower to hold their side of the fight, rather than any magical or supernatural abilities of their own.
A refreshing and original take on the military-horror crossover, SEAL Team 666 should prove to be the breakout novel for one-time Bram Stoker Award winner Weston Ochse. Fast-paced and well-constructed, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, despite the sometimes laborious technical detail. A must-read for fans of Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series or Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, SEAL Team 666 is also an essential read for fans of good horror fiction. While this is one reader who is looking forward to the imminent second book in the series, I’m also keen to see how Ochse capitalises on the wider audience this novel is sure to bring and whether we’re likely to see a more commercially-available return to his traditional horror roots. Either way, Ochse is one to watch.
|WE ARE HERE
Michael Marshall (www.michaelmarshallsmith.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
On a visit to New York to meet his publisher, David bumps into a man on the street – the sort of innocent collision that happens all the time on busy city pavements – who follows him back to Penn Station and confronts him. He utters two words, part question, part command, before disappearing again: “Remember me”. When John Henderson’s girlfriend introduces him to Catherine Warren, it is because she believes he can help her. Catherine is being stalked, and when John investigates he discovers that it’s not quite as straightforward as an ex-lover or shunned suitor. As David and John become entangled in this strange new world, a man named Reinhart is rallying troops for a push that could ultimately lead to death and destruction on an epic scale.
There is something comforting, despite the subject matter, about cracking open a new Michael Marshall novel. Perhaps it’s the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that you have no way of anticipating what’s in store next from one of the most original storytellers of recent years. Like his previous novels, We Are Here straddles the boundary between straight crime/thriller and straight horror as Marshall introduces us to a world that exists just on the periphery of our own, a group of people who live in the shadows and who are largely forgotten, or ignored, by the people around them.
In much the same way that Die Hard 2 is a sequel to Die Hard (the same central character finding himself in yet another, unrelated, but equally dangerous situation), We Are Here is a sequel to Marshall’s 2009 novel, Bad Things. John Henderson, who we last saw in the wilds of Washington state has moved to New York with Kristina and is now living and working in the East Village. Beyond that, there are no other major connections between the two novels, though long-time readers will have a better understanding of John’s background than people using We Are Here as a jumping-on point (if you haven’t read Marshall before, though, you should by no means allow this to deter you from starting here). In a move that now seems to be traditional for the author, Henderson’s sections are told in the first person, while the rest of the characters get chapters of their own, narrated in a third-person voice.
The voice itself is engaging and down-to-earth, and much of the story is told in a conversational tone that is sometimes at odds with what’s actually going on. Contrary to what you might expect, this works very well, and serves to tie the different elements of the story (often off-the-wall) neatly together into a coherent whole.
They made their way toward the platform via which they’d arrived at the station that morning. This turned out not to be where the train was departing from, however, and all at once they were in a hurry and lost and oh-my-god-we’re-screwed. David figured out where they were supposed to be and pointed at Dawn to lead the way. She forged the way with the brio of someone having a fine old time in the city, emboldened by a bucketful of wine, clattering down the steps to the platform and starting to trot when she saw their train in preparation for departure.
The nature of these shadowy people referenced by the novel’s title is never fully explained. A number of theories are presented to the reader, in the form of theories held by various characters (are they imaginary friends long since forgotten by the people who dreamed them up? Are they ghosts? Are they something else entirely?), and the reader is left to decide for themselves which they prefer, or which makes the most sense. Regardless of which theory is correct, Marshall has created a complex societal structure and set of rules which govern the actions of the group, giving these people some substance and background that is woven neatly into the fabric of the story.
The return of John Henderson gives us a sense of familiarity and I, for one, enjoy the various interconnections between his books that define the strange world that Marshall began creating with his Straw Men novels. We Are Here also introduces a huge cast of new characters, which is a departure from the small, controlled groups of central characters that we’re used to seeing in the author’s works. With Marshall’s deft touch, though, each stands out as an individual and it is easy to keep track as the story progresses. In Reinhart, Marshall has created one of the most sinister and evil characters you’re likely to encounter in a piece of fiction. Despite the fact that he spends much of the story lurking in the background, his brief appearances are memorable and shiver-inducing.
Another winner from a master of his game, We Are Here is a welcome addition to Michael Marshall’s growing catalogue. Part crime, part horror, part urban fantasy, it should appeal to new and old readers alike with its mixture of dark comedy, horror, mystery and abrupt violence. Fast-paced, tightly-plotted and beautifully-written, We Are Here packs thrills and chills into an intelligent story that, despite its fantastical elements, never loses its plausibility or sense of realism. If you’re already a fan of Michael Marshall then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t read the man’s books before, then We Are Here is an excellent place to start. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
|THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK
Calamity Leek is a teenage girl who lives, along with her many sisters, in a walled compound known as The Garden. Under the watchful, and more than a little demented, eye of their Aunty, the girls perform their daily chores and undertake their training which will eventually take them out into the big bad world where their job will be the destruction of the male population. When one of the sisters attempts to escape over the wall and brings back news that contradicts what they have been taught, the girls begin to question the worldview that has been presented to them by their aunt, and their elusive Mother.
When Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel opens, the reader finds themselves plunged into the middle of a fully-realised world with little idea of what’s going on. The concept of the Garden, and the stories of what lies beyond (roving bands of blood-thirsty Injuns) evoke tales of the post-apocalypse. As the novel progresses, we quickly learn that the truth is much simpler, and much darker. Around the quarter mark, the names of all the girls that live in the Garden are listed, and it becomes obvious that there is a pattern to how these young girls, sisters only in that they are the victims of a heinous crime, have been named.
‘Maria Liphook, Sandra Saffron Walden, Dorothy Macclesfield, Annie St Albans, Truly Polperro, Nancy Nunhead,…’
Aunty, a failed stage actress, presents a worldview to the girls based on the musicals she so obviously adores (and which provide each of the girls with their first name), musicals which all share a strong female protagonist and in which men are often portrayed as domineering, often tyrannical, strong characters to which the women are expected to play second fiddle (Calamity Jane, for example, or My Fair Lady). The girls believe they are being groomed as assassins, who will be unleashed upon the world when they come of age to begin the extermination of the demonmales. The truth, of course, is much more sinister and, while Calamity herself doesn’t have the faculties to work it out, there are enough clues in the narrative to leave the reader in no doubt as to what the Garden is, and what is being done to these poor girls.
In the background lurks the elusive Mother, who worships her long-dead daughter, and who is constantly on the lookout for a replacement, much to the disgust of Aunty. The dynamics between these two women, each damaged in her own way, reveal much of the underlying story to the reader, while keeping the horrible truth hidden from the girls who have never had a chance to learn any better. Lichtarowicz handles these characters beautifully; there is something comedic about them and their interactions with each other, but we are never in any doubt as to how evil they are. They often tread the fine line between human and caricature, without ever overstepping the mark; we, the reader, maintain, for the duration, a healthy fear of them both, and the things of which they are capable.
What makes the book so special, so instantly loveable, is the voice of the protagonist herself, young Miss Calamity Leek. Full of innocence and wonder, the first-person narrative is extremely engaging and cleverly constructed, so that Calamity can tell us everything we need to know without ever realising the import of her own words. It’s impossible not to like the narrator, and her simple, straightforward manner makes what has happened to her and her “sisters” all the more abhorrent when we eventually work out what it is. Her innocence also makes for a spine-tingling climax – never has the question “Is there a kitchen there?” carried so much weight – showing that Lichtarowicz already has an excellent grasp on what makes a story work.
With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.
|FORTRESS FRONTER (SHADOW OPS: Book Two)
Myke Cole (mykecole.com)
Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a Pentagon-based paper-pusher, wakes from a nightmare to the feeling that he is drowning. Before the day is out, it is clear that Colonel Bookbinder has come up Latent, though he has not yet Manifested any particular powers. Surrendering himself to the SOC, he finds himself in a new office, doing the same old job. This office is in Forward Operating Base Frontier, in the alternate plane known as the Source. When Oscar Britton effects his escape, leaving what remains of the base open to almost-constant goblin attack, Bookbinder finds himself drawn out of his comfort zone, fighting for the survival of the base and his people. His options limited, the colonel finds himself on a collision course with the very man who left them all to perish.
Rather than picking up immediately following the end of the first book in the series, Control Point, Myke Cole takes us back in time and introduces us to Colonel Alan Bookbinder, and reintroduces us to this brave new post-Great Reawakening world from a new point of view. Career Army, Bookbinder has, nonetheless, never served in combat. Despite his rank, he does not have the respect of his subordinates, and feels that he doesn’t really deserve it. In many ways, Bookbinder is Oscar Britton’s opposite: when he discovers that he is Latent, he surrenders himself willingly to the SOC and finds himself doing the same job in a new base. Where Oscar is a combat veteran who is starting to question the methods of the Army in which he serves, Bookbinder finds himself recreated as a new man through his experiences in the Source: his fear is gone, replaced by a desire to not only lead, but to lead from the front; he finds himself endowed with a new sense of authority and quickly discovers that he has the respect of the relatively small group of men and women under his command.
As well as introducing this new central character, and the secondary characters that form around his storyline, Cole uses Bookbinder’s story to remind the reader of what has gone before: the rules of this strange new world, the various types of magic, and the makeup of the people based at FOB Frontier. He manages to re-cover a lot of ground while pushing the story forward and keeping the reader engaged. It’s also an interesting device in allowing the reader to see what happened inside the base when Oscar and his friends made their bid for freedom, and shows the consequences of the action that closed the first book.
When Bookbinder is firmly bedded in, Cole eventually returns us to Oscar, and picks up where he left off. Here, a lot of the groundwork prepared in the first novel begins to pay off, as Oscar tries to find a movement that will allow him to expose what is going on, and change how Latents are viewed by the rest of the world. The insurgencies mentioned in the first book begin to play a greater role here, and it’s no surprise that they view Oscar – sometime Public Enemy Number One – as something of a hero. Here, too, we see an expansion of some of themes Cole touched upon during Control Point: the mistrust between normal humans and this new breed of Latents, and the origins of this schism. It’s an interesting – and all-too-plausible – take on that age-old superhero problem.
As the story moves towards its final act, the paths of Britton and Bookbinder begin to converge, as it becomes clear that Oscar may be the only person alive who can help Bookbinder to save his people. On the journey, we see whole new swathes of the Source, and meet a handful of new races that may have been glimpsed, or hinted at, before. In one of the book’s most surprising turns, we run across an old, and completely unexpected, friend, serving to close off – perhaps a little too conveniently – one major plotline in the process.
With most of the groundwork laid in Control Point, Cole is free to spend his time telling a good solid story this time around. Once again, the use of fictional epigraphs – interviews, document excerpts, and the like – at the start of each chapter serve to expand our knowledge of the world without encroaching on the on-going story. Fortress Frontier feels a lot less disjointed than its predecessor; there is a more coherent flow to events, perhaps helped by the fact that the story is split across two main characters this time around, and less a sense of one short mission following another with no real connection between them beyond the characters taking part.
Myke Cole has found the perfect niche for his work. Military fantasy with a dash of science fiction, Fortress Frontier shows us a whole new side to the Shadow Ops world to which Control Point first introduced us. The introduction of a new central character gives us a chance to get a slightly different perspective on what we thought we already knew without contradicting anything that has gone before, while still managing to move the plot on considerably by the book’s action-packed ending. As fast-paced as the first, Fortress Frontier is, however, a much different beast: the origin story is out of the way; now it’s time to get down to business, and Myke Cole delivers beyond expectations. There is much to love here, and the reader is sure to come away with an intense need to find out what’s next.