Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GUEST POST: The Problems With Time Travel by MARK MORRIS

Wraiths cover Name: Mark Morris

Author of: THE WOLVES OF LONDON (2014)
                 THE SOCIETY OF BLOOD (2015)
                 THE WRAITHS OF WAR (2016)

On the web:

On Twitter:  @MarkMorris10

Mark-Morris-Obsidian-Blog-Tour (1)I’ve been a big fan of Doctor Who ever since I was terrified by the Yeti, the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen when I was four, but although the Doctor is a time traveller, in the original series (1963-89) the show rarely tackled the machinations and complexities of time travel itself. However in one particular 1972 story, Day of the Daleks, the question was raised as to why a time traveller couldn’t simply go back and nip a potentially terrible situation in the bud before it developed – and furthermore, why, if they failed the first time, they couldn’t keep going back.

The obvious answer, in reality, is that such an ability would completely negate the drama and excitement of pretty much every story. The Doctor, however, came up with a catch-all phrase, a kind of cosmic or temporal rule, whereby continually revisiting the same timeline in order to change it was an impossibility presumably imposed by time itself. He called it the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.

When writing my OBSIDIAN HEART trilogy, I too had to consider not only this question, but countless others. The more I delved into the intricacies of time travel – its possibilities, its anomalistic qualities – the more I became convinced that time travel was, and always would be, impossible. For instance, if we were able to time travel, we would all be able to become multi-millionaires overnight by literally creating money out of nothing. How, you may ask. Well, consider this. Imagine if the present you was visited by a future version of you from (let’s say) ten years hence with a suitcase containing twenty million pounds. With that amount of money you could not only live comfortably off the interest, but you could also generate more money – a lot more money! – and then in ten years time all you would have to do would be to fill the suitcase you’d been given ten years earlier with twenty million pounds, and go back to give it again to your younger self – and on and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, if everyone did this it would lead to massive problems – economies crashing, money becoming worthless – but then that would change the future, which would mean that your future self couldn’t appear to you in the first place, thus creating an anomaly. But what if the item was smaller, less influential? What if your future self appeared, gave you a pen, and said, “Keep this for the next twenty years, and then on October 10 2036 travel back to October 10 2016 and give your past self this pen and the exact same instructions I’m giving you.” The question then, of course, would be, where did the pen come from? Where and how and when was it made? Because it only exists in the twenty year time loop as your possession, forever being passed back to your younger self. Which ultimately means it – like the money – was created out of nothing!

You can tie yourself in knots with this stuff – and I frequently did during the writing of OBSIDIAN HEART. Hopefully I managed to negotiate a safe route through the minefield, though as it’s such a complex subject there is always the possibility that I overlooked something. I guess only time will tell.

THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree - Greg Iles THE BONE TREE

Greg Iles (

Harper (


With the investigation into the death of Viola Turner still very much unsolved, Penn Cage finds that his father, Dr Tom Cage, may have been involved in more than some Ku Klux Klan killings. An FBI cold case team, of which agent John Kaiser is a member, have linked the Double Eagles with one of the most well-known killings in American history, and are keen to pursue it while the momentum is good. It’s an approach that doesn’t suit Penn’s immediate need to get his father to safety, and with the leader of the Double Eagles about to take control of the Louisiana State Police, that’s looking less likely by the minute. There is one lead, a lead of almost mythical proportions: a tree in the swamp where there is enough evidence to convict all of the Double Eagles and solve one of America’s greatest mysteries, and Penn’s girlfriend, Caitlin Masters, will stop at nothing to find it.

The Bone Tree picks up immediately where Natchez Burning left off, dropping the reader back into the middle of the action as if we’d never been away. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about jumping back in: the murder of Viola Turner is still unsolved; we’ve been learning more and more about the past of Dr Tom Cage, and with luck there should be plenty more to come; and while the epic stand-off that closed book one is now in the past, there are still plenty of bad guys to keep Penn and his motley band of crusaders very much on their toes.

It’s an excitement that lasts for only a short while, I’m sorry to say. While The Bone Tree takes us back to Natchez, Mississippi, a small town where so many questions have been left unanswered, it isn’t long before Iles sets out a new agenda for this second book in the series. The murder of Tom Cage’s old nurse takes a backseat along with the murders committed by the Double Eagles during the 1960s, and The Bone Tree becomes, to all intents and purposes, a second-rate Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller. It is, to say the least, something of an anti-climax after the pulse-pounding Natchez Burning. Couple this with the fact that the main characters become much less likeable the more time we spend in their company, their selfishness overriding any of the other qualities they may have had – particularly Penn and Caitlin – to the extent that they become almost like sulky children playing at adulthood.

Which is not to say that The Bone Tree is a bad novel. It’s just not the excellent novel that it should have been had Iles stayed on track and given us a proper follow-up to Natchez Burning. As the book ends, 850 pages later, we find that we’re none the wiser about any of the questions raised by the first book in the series: who killed Viola Turner? No idea. What’s the deal with Tom Cage and his strange and incriminating silence? No idea. Are we likely to find out in the next book? Frustratingly, no idea, because who knows where Iles will take the story next?

The book does have some glimpses of brilliance: the scenes at the Bone Tree are chilling and affecting, enough to bring a shiver to even the most hardened of readers. And Iles proves that he’s not all about the cliché, taking the unprecedented step of killing off key characters to advance the story – The Bone Tree racks up a main character body count that is worthy of Game of Thrones. It’s just a shame that the Kennedy assassination gets so much attention, and the original story becomes little more than a series of sub-plots to round out the page count.

In many ways it feels like The Bone Tree could be skipped without losing much momentum on the overall story, though it’s probably just about worth the read for the aforementioned glimpses of brilliance. Iles has a lot of work cut out for himself in book three to make us care about the central characters again, and it’s likely that many readers will only return to the trilogy’s final volume to get the answers to the questions that we expected to find in The Bone Tree. In short, it’s a disappointing novel that has the potential to wreck what could have been an excellent trilogy.

THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG TOUR by Natasha Courtenay-Smith


Natasha Courtenay-Smith (

Piatkus (


This week sees the release of Natasha Courtenay-Smith’s The Million Dollar Blog, a book that looks at the current state of play in the blogging industry and offers advice on how to stand out from the crowd. To celebrate the launch of this essential read for anyone currently running, or planning to run, a blog of any description, I – along with a number of my fellow bloggers – have been asked to take part in a blog tour with a bit of a difference. Rather than reviewing the book, we have been asked to talk about our own blogging experiences and, perhaps, offer tips that have helped us on our journey. I would highly recommend checking out the rest of the tour: there are some excellent pieces which give some insight into the world of the jobbing blogger.

My own experience with blogging started in the dim and distant past when people used LiveJournal to blog about how many hours they slept last night, or what, exactly, they did yesterday in more detail than anyone needs to know. After a couple of aborted attempts, I decided that it wasn’t for me, so I left it. Years later, Twitter came along and I found myself having conversations not only with like-minded readers, but with the people who wrote and published the books I loved to read. And so the idea formed: a blog that would concentrate solely on book reviews with little insight into my personality beyond what I thought of the book in question. The name came to me as I was staring at the WordPress registration screen, months-old baby in one arm.

Long-time readers of the blog will know that the blog has evolved – as has my reviewing style! – over its five-and-a-half-year lifetime, to include guest posts, interviews, a book-related travelogue and – my crowning achievement so far, in my own humble opinion – the wonderful essays that make up Carrie at 40. Adaptation is the nature of the game, providing content that will interest your readers and bring them back for more time and time again.

There are countless book review blogs out there in the big bad world, and you don’t need to look too far to find them. So, why bother? Why does my opinion matter, and why do I think anyone else would be interested in hearing it? Reader Dad, like many of the book review blogs, is a labour of love; it was never intended to make me famous or rich. It is, quite simply, a venue that allows me to share my love of books with the world. In my five-and-a-half years I have built up a small but consistent core following (hello there!) and it is for these people that I write. I have long been of the opinion that book review blogs are more likely to sway readers one way or the other than newspaper or magazine reviews. Why? The complete history of my opinions on books is available at the reader’s fingertips. It gives people a sense of what kind of reader I am, and lets them decide whether my taste is similar enough to their own for them to trust my reviews.

And there, for me, is the crux of the matter: trust. I write honest reviews (and would recommend anyone running a book review blog to do the same) and while I often receive free books, they are always sent in the implicit understanding that I will always be 100% honest about what I thought of them. There is nothing that sets me apart from a hundred other bloggers except that some people have similar tastes to me and have come to trust the reviews I write. It’s a winning formula: I get to keep banging on about books in the knowledge that people read what I write, and I get people talking about books which, let’s face it, is much better than talking about anything else!

Don’t let the overcrowded blogosphere put you off starting your own: there will always be someone out there who trusts your opinion over anyone else’s and if you can keep the conversation going with that one person, then you’re doing something worthwhile.

The Million Dollar Blog by Natasha Courtenay-Smith is out now, priced 13.99.




Greg Iles (

Harper (


April 2017 will see the release, in hardback, of the final volume of Greg Iles’ Unwritten Laws trilogy, Mississippi Blood. To help build excitement for the new book’s release, HarperCollins are running a global blog tour to get people interested in reading the first two books, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree. I’m delighted to have been asked to take part. You’ll find my review of Natchez Burning below; be sure to check back on October 7th to find out what I thought of The Bone Tree.

Before that, though, HarperCollins have very kindly supplied me with a copy of Natchez Burning and a beautiful Greg Iles tote bag to give away to one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat, leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 11th September. I’ll draw one name from the hat on Monday 12th September and let the lucky winner know before lunch time.

“If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him.

Penn Cage first learns of the death of his father’s old nurse when the local DA informs him that his father is the prime suspect in her murder. So begins a chain of events that will see Dr Tom Cage on the run for his life, and former prosecutor Penn trying to solve a series of forty-year-old murders in order to prove his innocence. With the help of intrepid reporter Henry Sexton, Penn Cage discovers the existence of the Double Eagles, a Klan splinter group whose crimes against the coloured community of Natchez, Mississippi covered much darker motives than those of their white-sheet-clad brethren. As Penn and Henry continue to dig, they find connections to local multimillionaire Brody Royal and the operations of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. No longer sure who his father really is, Penn Cage finds himself in a race against time to prove his innocence before his own family become the latest victims of the Double Eagles.

Natchez Burning is the fourth of Greg Iles’ novels to feature (former) state prosecutor Penn Cage, though it is the first volume of the so-called Unwritten Laws trilogy, which will conclude next April with the publication of Mississippi Blood. As a first-time reader of Iles’ work, I’m happy to report that no prior knowledge of the character is required to dive into this dark and intricately-woven tale of the racial tensions that still plague America’s Deep South over forty years after the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story focuses on a series of crimes from the central portion of the 1960s ostensibly committed by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group called the Double Eagles. At the end of 2005, as New Orleans struggles to get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nearby town of Natchez, Mississippi prepares for Christmas. Viola Turner, an elderly black woman who worked for Dr Tom Cage during the early 1960s before disappearing for almost 40 years, has returned home to die. When she is found dead in her sickbed, suspicion immediately falls on Dr Cage with whom, it is reported, she had a euthanasia pact. When Tom clams up, refusing to answer the questions of his son Penn, now serving as the mayor of Natchez, Penn begins to question what he thought he knew about his father. When Dr Cage disappears, Penn’s faith in the old man is shaken to the core.

Henry Sexton, a crusading reporter who has spent years trying to get to the bottom of the Double Eagles’ reign of terror finally gets one of them to talk. Glenn Morehouse is dying of cancer, and wants to confess his sins before he dies. When Henry hears of Tom Cage’s predicament, it becomes clear that he and Penn Cage could help each other, proving Tom’s innocence and bringing down one of the richest men in America in the process. But some of the Double Eagles are still alive, and the group has grown, the reins passing to a younger generation of tougher men, who will stop at nothing to ensure their own safety.

While Natchez Burning seems, at first glance, like a hefty investment – the paperback clocks in at over 850 pages – it’s a reasonably fast-paced read, the type of book that is extremely difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve found myself sneaking a handful of paragraphs in every spare minute of the day. This is helped by the story’s relatively compressed timeline: aside from the opening chapters which give us some insight into the formation of the Double Eagles, and an introduction to some of their most important (to the story, at least) victims, the bulk of the story takes place over three days in the week before Christmas. Told from multiple viewpoints, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader – if not necessarily the characters, who each have a limited amount of knowledge – just how complex the story is while never quite giving us enough to piece together a solution: as the novel ends, Tom Cage’s motives for flight, for example, are as obscure as they were at the story’s beginning, though we begin to understand his character more as the days pass.

The story is told in a mixture of first-person present tense (from the point of view of Penn Cage) and third-person past tense for a range of other characters including Henry and Tom, Penn’s girlfriend Caitlin, and members of the Double Eagles like Sonny Thornfield and Forrest Knox. It’s an interesting approach that allows Iles to distance himself from Cage when he needs to: there are a couple of key scenes where we watch the action from another point of view and find ourselves questioning Penn’s motives, something that would have been impossible had we been watching through his eyes. While there is no doubt that Penn is the story’s hero, these scenes make him seem more human, more willing to bend the law if it means his father survives and keeps his freedom.

Natchez Burning gives an insight into the modern-day Deep South and shows that, in many respects, the darkness that enshrouded it during the 1960s is still very much in place today. “He broke the law,” one character tells Penn, “the unwritten law” as justification for the death of a black boy whose only crime was to fall in love with a white girl. What is most frightening for the modern audience, is the sense that this sentiment is as true for that character in 2005 as it was in 1964. There is a moment towards the end where Iles falls victim to cliché (the bad guy with a propensity for talk rather than action), but it’s a small blip in an otherwise excellent novel.

Dark and at times horrific, Natchez Burning is a fictional look at one of the worst periods of America’s history made more frightening by its roots in reality. It’s an examination of family and loyalty against a backdrop of racism and conspiracy. There is, in Iles’ opinion, plenty of blame to go around, and he spreads it liberally – the Ku Klux Klan, local police, the FBI. An excellent companion piece to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, with which it shares many themes, Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning is an incredible piece of fiction that I – and, indeed, you, if you have not already – should have read when it was first published in 2014. With the impending publication of the trilogy’s closing volume, there is no better time to catch up with the book that started it all.



Author of: THE GOOD LIAR (2016)

On Twitter: @searlegoodliar

It’s difficult to list the influences on my writing. There are too many and several of them are subliminal rather than conscious. Plus, there’s a risk when you cite influences that you’re inviting comparisons. Definitely not, in my case: I’m looking up at people not seeking to emulate them or imagine I’m on the same level.

Let’s start with the obvious: John le Carré. His key espionage books – apart from the wonderful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – were published in my adult formative years and seemed to sum so much up for me. I loved the serpentine plots but for me it was the characters and the integral cynicism – concealing idealism – and world-weariness that won me over. And, of course, the prose. I do think that spying is a rich vein for writers to mine, so long as they can do so convincingly. It contains a multitude of our most primal concerns in life. Who can I trust? Am I being disloyal myself? How can I make the right choice when faced with what looks like a range of bad ones? How do I balance heart and head? To see them distilled on the page in this setting can be very enriching. In common with several others, I think that when le Carré attempts to write ‘literary’ fiction (whatever that is) the end result can look mushy – The Naïve And Sentimental Lover being a prime example – and that recently he’s become a bit ‘shouty’ at times. But le Carré off form is often better than many others at the peak of their achievement, and it’s hard to beat the trio of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Likewise Graham Greene, who like le Carré breaks the rules and straddles the boundary between what he calls ‘entertainments’ and serious fiction. I think he makes a false distinction and admit to being confused about the differentiations between genres: there’s as much truth for me in The Third Man or Our Man In Havana as there is in The Power And The Glory. If there is one book though that distils the darkness it’s Brighton Rock, still as vividly terrifying and cruel, and modern, as it was back in 1938. And you can trace the lineage back to Conrad: not so much the overblown seafaring epics like Lord Jim, but the much tighter stories that plumb our souls such as The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness.

THE GOOD LIARI studied languages, so was fortunate enough to have been able to read some of the European classics of the mid-20th century in the original; and I loved their despair and desolation. I’ve a special place for Heinrich Böll and particularly Die Verlorene Ehre Der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum) and Ansichten Eines Clowns (a pretty poor English translation is long out of print). And I love Camus: the opening of L’Étranger (The Stranger) is possibly the best beginning sentence of any novel I’ve read.

I could go on. It seems perhaps scattergun but I admire immensely P.D. James, Richard Ford and Ian McEwan for the cool precision of their language that somehow conveys emotion. Kent Haruf’s brevity seeps feeling in each gap in the dialogue. And Kate Atkinson. Wow. In Life After Life and A God In Ruins she gives a masterclass in subtlety and complexity conveyed in the simplest of terms. She doesn’t treat the reader as a fool who needs to be led by the nose but challenges all the time and in the course of doing that tells fundamental truths, both about the thing that is fiction and about us.

And I haven’t even begun to describe my influences away from books, in film, TV, theatre and music!…

Nicholas Searle’s novel The Good Liar is out now from Penguin.


Zygmunt Miloszewski Name: ZYGMUNT MIŁOSZEWSKI

Author of: ENTANGLEMENT (2010)
                 A GRAIN OF TRUTH (2012)
                 RAGE (2016)

There are no schools or universities for writers. Well, there probably are some institutions out there that con people into believing they can be taught how to write, but the only school of writing worth mentioning is every writer’s bookshelf. So if I had to name my best teachers they would be: Astrid Lindgren, Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Henning Mankell and Pierre Lemaitre.

Astrid Lindgren taught me that complexity and sophistication aren’t needed to make literature great. That wisdom and depth should be accompanied by light, warm humour and simple language, even when you’re writing about the darkest themes.

Charles Dickens is the only teacher you could possibly need for a Ph.D. in drawing characters.

Kurt Vonnegut makes this list for his constant ”Hey, but seriously?” irony, black humour and – in spite of all – his love of humanity. If you think a novel has to be serious to explain the world and you’re proud of having read Dostoevsky over and over, try Kurt. He explained everything that ever needed to be explained, his books are shorter and they‘re extremely funny.

Without Henning Mankell, I’d never have written a crime novel. I discovered him at the start of my career, and I was amazed to find that the same book can provide an in-depth analysis of a society as well as a gripping and well-plotted crime story. That was when I decided to write a crime novel underlined with a social commentary. Societies, with all their wrongs and lies, have always interested me more than individuals.

Pierre Lemaitre, on the contrary, was the reason why I stopped writing crime stories. I discovered his books and wept. While the rest of us competed within the genre of police procedurals, this French author upped and invented a crime genre of his own. The moment I realized what he had done, I decided to quit the contest. We may only be crime writers, but we’re still artists, whose task is to find our own way, not just to follow trails cut by others.

Rage Book Blog banner - Final

RAGE by Zygmunt Miłoszewski

RAGE - Zygmunt Miloszewski RAGE

Zygmunt Miłoszewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

AmazonCrossing (


The discovery of a skeleton in a construction site in the historic Polish city of Olsztyn brings Prosecutor Teodor Szacki into the spotlight when it is discovered that the bones are fresh, the rest of the body chemically dissolved. Identifying the remains proves relatively easy, but that’s only the start of Szacki’s problems. When more victims turn up, it becomes clear that the killer is carrying out their own flavour of vigilante justice on perpetrators of domestic abuse. With the kidnap of Szacki’s teenage daughter, things become personal, and Szacki finds himself closer to an answer to the age-old question: what could be enough to make a man kill?

I’m not a fan of jumping into series that are already several books along, and Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s latest, Rage, is a very good example why: after spending the book discovering a great new voice in crime fiction, and a protagonist who is unlike any other I have encountered, it turns out that this is said protagonist’s final book. While it’s a disappointing end to an excellent book, Rage does work very well as a standalone novel, and Teodor Szacki is a character you are unlikely to forget.

Szacki himself is a prosecutor, the sort of character who turns up all the time in European crime fiction, but who doesn’t have any counterpart in the British or American justice systems. Originally from Warsaw, Szacki is now practicing in the historic city of Olsztyn and he immediately comes across as the big-city character who, despite the pros, can always find something to complain about in his new provincial surroundings. If it isn’t the region’s dreary weather, it’s the traffic planner, and if not him, then Szacki is sure to have something else to complain about.

Despite his gruff ways, he’s an interesting character, a man with a tough exterior coating a softer – and distinctly likeable – centre. There is a black humour that pervades the novel’s every page, a kind of gallows humour that brings levity even at the most unexpected moment, and it often comes from Szacki’s very cynical viewpoint. He finds himself surrounded by one of the oddest casts of characters ever gathered behind the cover of a serious novel, from his boss who refers to him as Misterteo, his by-the-book and thoroughly inflexible subordinate Falk, to the university anatomist with the unlikely name of Doctor Frankenstein.

Despite the humour, and the somewhat off-the-wall characters, Rage brings with it an important message, shining a light on the topic of domestic abuse, and how it is dealt with – or, more often, ignored until it is far too late – by the authorities in many countries: Szacki finds himself in the uncomfortable position of potentially sending one woman home to her death, the result of a very old-fashioned viewpoint combined with the lack of a clear strategy for dealing with the sort of cases that Miłoszewski uses to highlight the problem. And in order to remove any doubt from the mind of the reader, the author places his story in a very specific period in time – late 2013 – by opening each chapter with a brief overview of that day’s news, starting from a global perspective, and working towards news local to the novel’s setting (amusingly, these news reports always end with a distinctly gloomy weather forecast for the region).

The novel takes a dark turn as Szacki makes the final deductive leap and realises who is behind the horrific murders and mutilations. It’s an unexpected turn, a moment of horror that jars the reader out of the complacency so wonderfully evoked by the author’s storytelling style. It forces us to stop and question our loyalties and poses the difficult question: what might I have done in the same position? It’s a master-stroke and ensures that Rage will remain with the reader long after the final page.

This is dark – and darkly humorous – European crime fiction at its best. Anyone who has enjoyed the Verhoeven novels of Pierre Lemaitre will find something to love in Teodor Szacki and the novels of Zygmunt Miłoszewski. If, like me, you’d prefer to meet Szacki at the start of his fictional journey, it’s probably best to start with Entanglement and work forwards, but there may be benefit to starting with Rage and reading out of order – I’ll certainly let you know when I’ve gone back and read the others. Miłoszewski is a writer of unmatched talent, and Rage, ably translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is one of the finest novels you’ll read this year. Not to be missed.


Photo © Rachel Sundheim

Author of: SECURITY (2016)

On the web:

I was wracking my brain about which influence to discuss in this post. The truth is, everything I’ve read, watched and lived has had an influence on my fiction. I think that’s why I started writing to begin with, way back when I was too young to understand the relief I felt when I put my excess fascinations on paper. I retain too much. I need the outlet.

But don’t worry. As I debated how to consolidate my myriad artistic role models for your reading enjoyment, I dished some pot roast, flipped on DirectTV, and found The Rock playing on cable.

I’ve known a great many artists who are selective in the extreme about what they will permit themselves to learn from. Few of them would consider a scenery-chewing action film from 1996 as a proper place to gain storytelling skills. But as I said, I can’t help it. I’m an inveterate lover of a tale well-told. I decided this single film and the reasons I enjoy it could explain a lot about why I wrote a book like Security — a hybrid horror/mystery/romance with a narrator who pontificates on death and a heroine who makes a pretty good Sartre joke — as well as why I intend to write many more novels whose insouciant insistences on character and theme do not negate a concomitant devotion to thrills.

It’s all but impossible to argue that The Rock is in any way subtle. Firstly because Nicolas Cage is in it. His acting is a study in foregoing subtlety, and that’s its charm, its vividness. He’s a great match for Michael Bay, for whom this movie represents a fantastical departure from the digitally enhanced, narratively anorexic filmmaking he would embark upon later.

The plot: a legendary general takes over Alcatraz and threatens a poisoned gas attack on San Franciso. Cage is an FBI chemical weapons specialist tasked with disarming the rockets. He’ll be escorted in by a team of soldiers, and that team of soldiers will be led by the only convict who ever escaped the notorious American prison.

Enter Sean Connery. As with any movie he stars in, he is this one’s ace in the hole — a calm, wry presence who anchors the car chases, gun fights and explosions. He is also, undoubtedly, the greatest possible foil for Nicolas Cage, whose zany flights of improvised dialogue ring true and grounded and balanced in The Rock, more so than in any other work he’s done. My favorite line delivery in all of cinema is delivered in this movie, and it is delivered by Nicolas Cage.

“I drive a Volvo. Beige one.”

That line and the way he says it tells Connery’s character — and us — everything we could hope to know about Stanley Goodspeed, an unwilling hero who, of course, winds up going it alone with the grizzled escape artist, saving San Fran one scary bomb at a time.

It’s wonderful to have intriguing heroes. It is imperative to have interesting villains. That’s why Ed Harris is here, eminently buyable as a battalion commander with an axe to grind about soldiers killed in covert ops. He’s not just a maniac after money. The bad guys’ meltdown toward the finale reveals schisms within the ranks that distinguish the banally evil from the morally misguided.

Yet, for all that, what really makes The Rock a home run is The Rock itself. Alcatraz — the impenetrable, inescapable fortress that housed Capone, Doc Barker, and the first Public Enemy #1, Alvin Karpis. Who? Exactly. Alcatraz is where the worst of the worst were sent to disappear, and Bay actually filmed there. His taste for overkill color, off-putting in most of his projects, makes Alcatraz throb with age, reek, decay, danger. It’s like a decrepit playground for the dream cast to play on.

And yes, the slow-mo is overused. And yes, the set-up drags too long. Yes, lines like “You breathe, he breathes with you. You piss, he helps,” suggest the screenwriter took testosterone supplements to sound manlier. The music is overwrought (though the Irish flute is well-placed) and women are non-existent (except a meek daughter and a flighty fiance for the men to fret about). But when I went to this movie at age fifteen, I perfectly recall exiting the theater with my dad. The ground was soaked, the gutters flooded. A tornado had blown through while we were inside. There’s a joke in here about Michael Bay’s well-established love for loud, but had I been aware of the risk, I’d have probably just moved to a lower row. The finished cohesion of the story’s elements is that propulsive, alive, exciting, wild, and fun.

The Rock is not my favorite movie. I don’t think it cracks the top twenty. But it taught me lessons worth learning, and so have romance novels, and so have silly TV series about conflicted superheroes or melodramatic vampires. So has sitting in a coffeehouse on Sunday morning while the church crowd shows up for their after-worship mochas.

Writing is everywhere. Until you learn that, as well as how to swallow your pride and admit that Michael Bay once inspired you, your writing is nowhere.

Ergo . . .

Choose a setting pregnant with possibilities. Grow characters who spark off one another, challenge each other. Inhabit the big moments with shameless abandon. Allow wise voices to speak, but let the wiseasses have their say, too.

And resolve to fight — always, for all you’re worth — to be more compelling than a tornado.

Security is out now in Hardback and Audio CD

SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf

Security low res jacket SECURITY

Gina Wohlsdorf (

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (


The grand opening of Manderley Resort, an eyesore on the Santa Barbara Beach, is rapidly approaching. Hotel manager Tessa and her team of chefs, cleaners, and restaurant managers are preparing the hotel and the ballroom for the celebratory gala, while locked away on the impenetrable top floor, the security team watches everything through the secret and not-so-secret cameras that cover the vast majority of the hotel, including the guest rooms. But tonight, the staff will have more to deal with than the displeasure of Charles Destin, the hotel’s owner; there’s a killer in the hotel, a man in a mask who has already started killing, and who won’t stop until Manderley Resort contains nothing but corpses.

If you have ever watched and enjoyed a slasher film by the likes of John Carpenter, or Wes Craven, or Dario Argento, or any of the hundreds of other directors who practiced the art during the 70s and 80s, then Gina Wohlsdorf’s debut novel, Security, is the book for you. If you’ve watched one of those films and been turned off by the blood and gore, then it might also be the book for you since, let’s face it, it’s easier to imagine the blood than see it splattered across the screen.

The story starts slowly, introducing us to the main players. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that we’re watching the events unfold through the eyes of the head of security, who sees everything on his myriad monitors, when Tessa breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader:

She turns around in the reception driveway, looks directly into Camera 3, and says, “You know how Charles is. Don’t take it personally.”

At this point, much about Wohlsdorf’s strange narrative style begins to make sense: we are watching the events unfold through the cameras, and through the eyes of the nameless security chief locked away on the top floor. The flow from one character’s point of view to another’s – in which the author breaks all conventions – is down to his attention shifting from monitor to monitor. Shortly afterwards, the we find the first instance page splitting briefly into two columns, and we watch events fold in parallel through the lenses of two different cameras, before his attention is once again consumed by a single camera. This literary equivalent of the split-screen works very well, and serves to ratchet up the tension, particularly towards the story’s climax.

Why, we are forced to ask ourselves, if the chief of security can see the man he has dubbed “the Killer”, can see his terrible crimes, and the trail of blood he leaves as he moves around the hotel, why doesn’t he do anything about it? Is he complicit? Is his lair so well-protected that it makes more sense to stay put and hope for the Killer to finish his work and disappear into the night? It’s a question that plagues us throughout the book, and Wohlsdorf keeps us guessing, tell-tale signs in the narrator’s language forcing us to reconsider one way or the other as the story progresses.

At the centre of the story is Tessa herself, and her foster brother Brian, a man she has loved since childhood and who has visited Manderley Resort on this auspicious night to clear the air between them. It is, at heart, a love story, and the narrator’s obvious jealousy of the developing relationship does little to allay our fears that he is somehow involved in the blood spilled by the Killer. The characters all have their own secrets, they’re all damaged in some way, from the restaurant managers whose marriage is on the rocks, to the cleaner with an unhealthy (though well-deserved) dislike for men, from the ice queen Tessa to the high-strung chef whose reputation rests on the strength of his cherry coulis.

Security is like nothing you’ve ever read before, despite the similarities to everything you’ve ever seen in the slasher subgenre. Wohlsdorf’s writing style is unique, straight and to the point, wonderfully engaging and, while not quite as telegraphic as the likes of Ellroy, its short, sharp sentences pull the reader in and take us gleefully through this macabre evening of love and violence. The homages to the horror genre come thick and fast, from Carpenter’s Halloween (“It’s the same mask from the Halloween movies, the ones with Jamie Lee Curtis.”), to Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King (some of the action takes place in Room 1408, which is actually on the thirteenth floor, since no numbered thirteenth floor exists) and Ira Levin (Sliver, anyone?). The story, very cinematic in style due, in part, to the nature of how we view it, contains all the suspense and violence we expect from a slasher, all the stupid things the characters in such films inevitably do (“don’t go in there,” you’ll find yourself yelling at one character or another, or “why are you splitting up?”) and serves it up with a healthy dose of black humour that infuses every word.

One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

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