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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Thriller

Extract: TIME TO WIN by Harry Brett

Time To Win TIME TO WIN

Harry Brett (www.henrysutton.co.uk/harry-brett)

Corsair (www.littlebrown.co.uk)

£16.99

There was a time when the sound of rain was comforting, calming. Now it pissed her off. It was autumn already, she remembered. September 1. It was not her favourite month. She let the patter swirl around her head for another few minutes, realising she was listening out for something else. Breathing, snoring. But it wasn’t there. She lifted her head, opening her eyes. Propped herself on her elbows. Rich wasn’t there.

Tatty flung back her side of the duvet and climbed out onto the soft carpet, peering through the gloom for her dressing gown. She got to the blinds before spotting it in its own silky puddle, having slipped off the back of the chaise longue. Rich was forever castigating her for leaving her clothes lying around, clothes he’d spent a lot of money on.

She opened the blinds, taking in the wet grey slapping against the huge French doors. In only her nightie, short, also silk, she had an urge to open the doors, step out onto the balcony and feel the wet and cold on her skin. She needed to wake up, shake the Zimovane from her system. Looking out across the stretch of wide, dull grass that made up the top of Gorleston’s tired esplanade to a short stretch of gunmetal grey sea, which all too rapidly merged with sky, she thought better of it. She reached down for her dressing gown, stood, noticing a couple of figures, directly across Marine Parade.

They were not facing her way, not moving either, but hunched together on the pavement by the entrance to the last car park on the front, like the world they hated owed them everything. They were wearing scum gear, as Rich would call it. Hoodies, tracksuit bottoms, cheap trainers. None of which, she suspected, had ever been near a washing machine, or paid for. Smoke began swirling around their covered heads. A car, a long, light brown Lexus, rolled from the car park, seemingly nudging them out of the way, and they set off, in an absurd loping gait, towards Yarmouth, from where no doubt they had come.

Relieved, Tatty stepped back from the French doors and slipped her gown on, realising how dim the bedroom still was. Lights, she needed lights, warmth, on this most dull of early autumn mornings. She made her way straight to the en-suite, pressing the control panel as she entered. With a ceiling of halogen beating down on her she keyed the shower buttons, and caught herself in the mirror as the water gained heat. Her tan was fading fast. The air in this part of the world stripped you like sulphuric acid. Sun rarely happened.

Rich had said she shouldn’t bother coming back with him from Ibiza. She could spend another month by the pool. No, she couldn’t. There was the Smokehouse project nearing completion, her elder children to see, the house to get ready for Zach’s return, before he was off again. ‘You’ll not be seeing much of me, sweetheart,’ Rich had said. ‘We’re that close to getting the Americans on board. And I expect I’ll have to be in Athens at some point soon.’ He always wanted her out of the way. She never saw much of him. He hadn’t even come home last night. It wasn’t the first time.

Slowly the shower restored some feeling, some clarity. Stepping out, wrapping the towel around her paling body, she felt a tired, dull anger growing. He could have rung. He could have left a message. ‘I didn’t want to disturb you, sweetheart. Not in the middle of the night. I don’t know where the time went. But we made great progress. It’ll be signed within days.’ Those would be his shady words, when he did show up, she could imagine all too well. He rarely surprised her.

To check once more she walked back through to the bedroom, to her bedside table, the mobile on it. No texts or voicemails from Rich. Or email, not that that was his style. He never emailed her. He emailed his kids, but not her. She wasn’t sure he even knew her email address. Wrapped in a towel, she picked up the phone, shook it, as if that might somehow refresh the apps. Nothing changed. She wasn’t going to ring him.

Throwing it on the mound of duvet in the middle of the bed, she then picked up her watch, which until recently was his watch – a heavy white gold Rolex. He now had an Apple Watch, the 18-carat rose gold one, which he barely knew how to use. It was just past nine. Late for her, but she was still on holiday time. She put the chunky Rolex on and, edging towards the French window, she thought about what she was going to wear today. What could you wear to protect yourself against that? Not some shitty tracksuit, for sure. Oilskins. The word came to her, as if from another country. Another century anyway. Did people still wear oilskins? Did they still exist?

The scum were not in sight, anywhere up Marine Parade, but someone was at the door. The front door. She could hear the bell, ding-donging away downstairs. That sound was from another century, because the bell had been there when they’d bought the place, nearly thirty years ago now. It was the only thing they hadn’t changed. Rich thought it quaint.

Who the hell could be ringing it at this time? Her mind was now clear enough to process information, to think more rationally. It was too early for the post or a parcel delivery. It was not the kids, having forgotten their keys, which used to be such a common occurrence, because Sam and Ben were in London, where they’d been all summer, and Zach was in the Atlantic. Could Rich somehow have forgotten or lost his? It had never happened before. Besides, he wouldn’t use the bell, he’d thump on the door, and shout when no one came quick enough.

She was out of the bedroom and hurrying along the landing when she realised she was still wrapped in nothing more than a towel. But it was a far more modest piece of cloth than her dressing gown. She continued down the wide, softly carpeted stairs and along the hard oak floor of the hallway, lit only by the poor natural light seeping through the smoked security glass panel at the top of the door. She thought she could make out a head, in a hood. Just before she reached the door she felt something shift deep inside her. A small tremor.

She had a sudden, terrible urge to confront life, full on, sod any precautions that Rich was always so insistent upon. She flung open the door, not thinking whether the security chain was in place, anger and aggression coursing through. She knew it was not going to be good news. It never was when people visited them out of the blue. ‘Hello?’ she said, though faintly, short of breath.

‘Mrs Goodwin?’ A woman stepped forward.

She was shorter than Tatty, rounder and far paler, and stuffed into a too-tight dark waterproof. That’s what people wore now, waterproofs, made from high-tech synthetic fabrics. Zach had loads. ‘Yes?’ Tatty said.

‘I’m Detective Sergeant Julie Spiros, family liaison officer for Norfolk Constabulary, West Yarmouth branch, and this is Detective Inspector Peter Leonard.’ She was holding out her ID. Scum of a different sort.

The man next to her nodded, his lips shut tight in a grimace. His waterproof was hanging off him by the hood. He was tall and skeletal. He was not holding out his ID. He didn’t need to.

‘May we come in?’ Spiros said, stepping closer. ‘Perhaps we can go somewhere where you can sit down. Is anyone else in the house?’

Tatty must have nodded a yes, and then shook a no, her confidence already shot, because she found herself walking backwards with the two police officers. A chunk of cold wet cloud came inside with them. Their wet shoes squeaked on the oak flooring, and Tatty was pleased Rich wasn’t there because he would have been livid with them for not wiping their feet properly.

‘Would you like to put some clothes on?’ Spiros said. ‘I can come with you.’

Tatty looked down at the white towel. She was still damp from her shower. The air in the hall was now damp too, and cold. She would like to get dressed. But it was never quick. She was not going to let someone she didn’t know come with her either. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m OK.’

At the end of the large hall, to the left of the staircase, tucking the towel tighter around her, she didn’t know which way to go, into the sitting room, or the kitchen. Would they want tea, coffee? Was she meant to make them a drink? Rich had always treated the police with as much courtesy as he could muster. She thought she needed a coffee at least. It was the right time in the morning, so she led them that way.

In the huge kitchen, which once upon a time had been a double garage, she made straight for the marble-topped island, reached out for its thick, firm edge, turned to face her unexpected visitors, realising she was not going to make any coffee until they told her why they were there. They knew it too.

‘Would you like to sit down?’ said Spiros, glancing around the cold airy place, at the acres of glass looking out onto thick drizzle.

There were bar stools around the island, and over in a corner the glass-topped dining table, around which stood some steel chairs. It was not a comfortable kitchen. It was rarely warm, despite the under-floor heating. ‘Why are you here?’ Tatty said, a voice, her voice coming back.

‘I’m sorry, but we have some bad news,’ said Spiros. ‘Please, sit down.’ The man, Leonard, had still to say a word.

‘No,’ Tatty said. Not sure whether she was saying no to the idea of bad news, or no to the order to sit down. Her mind flashed to her children. Ben would be at work, in the City. Sam would be at work, down the road in Holborn. Zach would be being tossed around in the Bay of Biscay. It could get very rough, so she’d been told. Even at this time of the year. Had the boat capsized? Sunk? How would anyone know, so soon? An emergency signal set off? A tiny beacon in monstrous waves, Zach clinging to a life raft. He was a strong, tough kid.

‘There’s been a fatal incident,’ said Leonard.

So he did speak, when it mattered. And Tatty felt like she was in a bad TV show. She shook her head, found she was still clinging, not to a life raft but the marble top of the kitchen island. His voice was as thin and grave as his stature.

‘A car, your husband’s car, went into the river by Fish Wharf, the back of his offices,’ Leonard continued.

‘I’m afraid your husband’s body was found in the car this morning, by police divers,’ said Spiros.

‘Oh,’ said Tatty. ‘Oh.’

‘An operation is underway to retrieve the vehicle,’ said Leonard.

‘What about him – Rich?’ said Tatty. ‘Where’s he?’

‘The body has been recovered from the water,’ said Spiros, her face colouring. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. I’m so sorry.’

‘How? How did it happen?’ Tatty said. She found she’d let go of the marble top. She also found she could breathe. Zach’s boat had not sunk. He had not drowned. Rich had drowned.

‘We don’t know yet,’ said Leonard. ‘Obviously we’ll be doing everything we can to get to the bottom of what happened. Have you found any notes?’

‘Notes?’ said Tatty, feeling her mouth move in ways she knew were not appropriate.

‘Explaining perhaps why he might wish to take his life?’

‘You think he committed suicide?’ She almost laughed.

‘We’ll need to look at everything,’ Leonard continued. ‘There’ll be a post-mortem.’

‘It’s definitely him, is it?’ Tatty said, quite calmly.

‘We believe so,’ said Spiros. ‘If you’d like to see the body, we can arrange that.’

‘Yes,’ said Tatty. That was the thing to do, wasn’t it? She looked down once more at her towel, at her shins, her feet poking out and now looking rather brown against the white marble. She tried harder not to smile. ‘When?’

‘We’ll make the arrangements, and let you know.’ Spiros again. ‘Is there anyone you’d like to call, who you’d like to be here with you, this morning? Can we call anyone for you?’

There was, but Tatty was not going to say who. She felt her heart rushing forward.

‘I’m afraid,’ said Leonard, ‘that given who your husband was, we’re not sure how long his death will remain out of the media.’

‘We urge you,’ chipped in Spiros, ‘to contact family members, friends, those people who need to know, as soon possible.’

There weren’t many. Ben, Sam, Megan perhaps, Nina too – she’d be upset. ‘But Zach’s in the middle of the Atlantic,’ she said. ‘His phone won’t be working.’

‘Can I make you a cup of tea?’ said Spiros.

Tatty hadn’t noticed her accent before.

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INFLUENCES: Why I Write Crime Fiction by CANDICE FOX

9781784758066 Name: CANDICE FOX

Author of: CRIMSON LAKE (2016)

On the web: candicefoxauthor.com

On Twitter: candicefoxbooks

There was a lot of crime in my childhood, so my interest in crime began there, even if I wasn’t writing it as a young’un. My mother fostered 150+ kids who generally came from abusive, neglectful and criminal backgrounds. My father worked at a prison and my mother was a true crime nut who told real-life crime stories to us as kids. I used to peruse true crime mags and books in her bedroom from an inappropriately young age, which has probably desensitised me.

When I started writing I was trying to emulate the stories I liked, so I wrote gangster stories because I was a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But I didn’t have a good idea of structure, and found vampire stories (which are essentially just romances at times) easier when I was 16 or so and fell into Anne Rice and the like. A lot of those gothic influences linger, certainly most obviously in the Bennett/Archer series. I swung back toward Australian crime when I started reading Peter Temple in my early twenties.

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GUEST POST: Osbert and Me by GAVIN SCOTT

Age of Olympus final front cvr Name: GAVIN SCOTT

Author of: THE AGE OF TREACHERY (2016)
                      THE AGE OF OLYMPUS (2017)

On the web: gavinscott.co

On Twitter: @gavinscott942

Osbert and Me

Gavin Scott

The first character to speak in The Age of Olympus is Osbert Lancaster, who was, in real life the press attaché to the British Embassy in Athens in 1946 when the events of the novel take place. I am a great fan of Osbert Lancaster, and have been since before I knew who he was. This was because of a book published in 1948 that I came across in the home of my best friend, Conrad Pharazyn, in Havelock North, New Zealand, in 1962.

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It told the story of William de Littlehampton, who was guilt-tripped by his mother into going on Crusade (that’s him leaving in the picture on the left) and came back a hero (there he is on the front cover) and I found it was very, very funny. This is the somewhat bloodthirsty and quite politically incorrect drawing I loved best.

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Osbert was born in 1908, (looking rather less fierce, one hopes, than he does in this picture) during that golden Edwardian era before World War One, and went the famous Charterhouse school, whose headmaster kindly described him as “irretrievably gauche” and “a sad disappointment.” But at Oxford his friends included such future luminaries as Beverly Nichols, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Randolph Churchill and John Betjeman. Whether despite or because of this galaxy of soon to be famous friends, he graduated with a fourth class degree, but found his true métier (and his wife, Karen) when studying drawing and design at the Slade School of Art. He then began a prolific career as an illustrator of other people’s books, a writer and illustrator of his own, a stage designer and a cartoonist for the Daily Express for which he drew over 10,000 cartoons, which gave the British people great cheer during the war.

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Osbert appears in The Age of Olympus when the Foreign Office sent him to Athens as a press attaché in 1946, where he claimed to have saved the life of Winston Churchill from a communist sniper in the garden of the British Embassy. In the picture below, which I think was taken in that very garden, Osbert is the natty-looking character on the far right, looking quizzically at the gigantic figure of Archbishop Damaskinos, the regent of Greece, who also features in the story, together with his silver-topped cane.

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In fact it’s through Osbert that Duncan Forrester and Sophie meet the Archbishop and most of the other characters who are to play a role in the drama, and for my depiction of life in Athens at the time, I drew heavily on his wonderful description of Greece in 1946, Classical Landscape With Figures.

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His friendship with John Betjemen and their mutual delight in traditional English architecture and contempt for most contemporary buildings resulted in a series of magnificently witty books in which Osbert not only drew beautifully clear pictures of every imaginable architectural style, but gave them magnificent names which have tended to stick – such as Wimbledon Transitional and Stockbroker’s Tudor.

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To say nothing of Carpenter’s Gothic.

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You can find them in a series of books on architecture, culminating in the highly illuminating Cartoon History of same.

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Then there is his work for the stage, and for the Festival of Britain, and two delightful volumes of autobiography, All Done From Memory (1963) and With an Eye to the Future (1967). He was knighted in 1975, one of the few cartoonists ever to receive the honour, and died in 1986 at 77 in Chelsea. His obituary in the Times said he was "The most polite and unsplenetic of cartoonists, he was never a crusader, remaining always a witty, civilized critic with a profound understanding of the vagaries of human nature."

But I will always remember him for the wonderfully bloodthirsty drawings in The Saracen’s Head, and the pleasure they gave me as I sat in the shade of the Pharazyn’s porch below the Havelock Hills when I was twelve years old.

And of course, as well as Osbert himself, there’s a crusader in my book, too.

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RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole

Ragdoll - Daniel Cole RAGDOLL

Daniel Cole

Trapeze (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.

Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.

There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.

The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.

This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.

Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.

Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

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SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

Extract: A HARVEST OF THORNS by Corban Addison

9781784295233 A HARVEST OF THORNS

Corban Addison (corbanaddison.com)

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£13.99

Millennium Fashions Factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh

November 4 2013, 8:53 p.m.

The sparks danced like fireflies in the semidarkness of the storeroom. They emerged from the wall outlet in a shower of white-gold radiance, casting a flickering glow across the concrete slab beneath them. The sounds they made, the snapping and crackling of suddenly electrified air, were drowned out by the rattling of three generators across the room, whose whirling magnetic coils were straining to satisfy the demand of hundreds of lightbulbs and ceiling fans and sewing machines on the floors above.

The cause was elementary, as the investigators from Dhaka would later discover – an aging circuit, copper wire exposed through melted sheathing, a worn-out breaker box, a peak load the factory’s designers had never anticipated, and the gentle, inexorable persuasion of time. A short, the investigators would say. A common fault in a building so poorly maintained.

But what happened next was far from commonplace. The fire that started to burn in sacks of cotton jute – the leftover cuttings of T-shirts, sweatpants, and children’s apparel destined for Chittagong piers and American closets – would sweep farther and faster than any fire before it.

This fire would ignite the world.

…………………………………………..

Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC,

February 11 2015, 9:12 p.m.

Even at nine o’clock on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was bustling. Waiters scurrying. Glasses clinking. Bartenders pouring. Gaiety erupting. And conversations – the central currency of this supremely political town – drawing heads down and faces together, translating ideas into speech, aspirations into asks, in an endless quest for an angle, a vote, a promotion, or that most liquid of Washington assets – a favor. Josh loved it, the multidimensional poker game of personality and power. For fifteen years, he had been a regular at the table, here at Old Ebbitt, a century-old, mahogany-and-brass eatery steps away from the White House, and at places like it in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London. He had mastered its nuances, cultivated quid pro quos, and built an enviable reputation as an international journalist, netting him two Pulitzer Prizes and a book that hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But all of that was gone now. A single error in judgment had laid waste a lifetime of achievement. His colleagues at the Washington Post were colleagues no longer.

‘Joshua Griswold,’ said Tony Sharif, slipping into the green velvet booth across from Josh and draping his arm across the top. ‘It’s been too long.’

Josh shook his head. ‘I know it. Half the people in here are strangers.’

Tony’s face – a mélange of his Indian father and Anglo-American mother – remained impassive, but his eyes were alive with humor. ‘You’re getting old. I see gray in your beard.’

Josh gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘That’s purgatory for you. I feel like the Old Man of the Mountain. One day you’re a fixture. Everybody wants a picture. Then the earth moves, you disappear, and no one remembers what you looked like.’

Tony grinned ironically. ‘Could be worse. Nobody ever wanted a picture with me.’

‘You should ditch the news and try Bollywood,’ Josh jested. ‘With a mug like that, you could be the next Shah Rukh Khan.’

Tony put out his hand, and Josh clasped it. ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend.’

‘That makes two of you,’ Josh said.

Tony raised an eyebrow. ‘Who’s the competition?’

‘Reggie, the homeless guy at my old apartment building.’

Tony shook his head, and his eyes grew thoughtful. ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. The stories you wrote are some of the best in American journalism. The thing with Maria, it could have been any of us. She deceived a lot of people. It doesn’t change your reporting.’

She didn’t mean to deceive anyone, Josh thought. She did what she had to do. But he couldn’t say that. Not even to Tony Sharif, the man who had been at his side when shrapnel from an exploding IED sliced through their Humvee in Sadr City and buried itself in Josh’s thigh. Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother. But Tony would never understand Maria. She was a riddle in the flesh. Even Josh didn’t understand her, and he had spent years trying.

‘Don’t sweat it,’ Josh said. ‘Shit happens. It’s what makes our world go round.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ Tony replied, raising his bottle of Sam Adams. ‘To shit. May it survive long enough for me to earn a pension and for you to get back on your feet.’

‘Cheers,’ Josh said, taking a sip of Heineken, his beer of choice not so much for its flavor as for its ubiquity across the globe.

‘So you’re in town again,’ Tony said. ‘That means you’re working. What’s the story?’

‘Corporate malfeasance,’ Josh replied. ‘Apparel supply chains. A body count. The underside of American business.’

Tony’s face lit up. ‘Sexy. Who’s the target?’

Josh lowered his voice. ‘Presto.’

Tony leaned back against the booth, clearly intrigued. ‘The Millennium fire. We reported on that, you know. A lot of people did. That photo was like Napalm Girl in Vietnam. But this time the girl in the picture disappeared. We couldn’t track her down.’

Josh nodded but didn’t reply, allowing Tony to interpret his silence.

‘Wait a minute,’ Tony said. ‘You have a source.’ He let out a grunt, then began to grumble. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You found someone willing to talk.’

It was the response Josh had expected. For five years, Tony had been the Post’s bureau chief in India. Last year he had taken a senior editorial position in Washington, but his network in South Asia remained as far-reaching as the Ganges. Josh was intruding upon his territory.

‘I’ve got to hand it to you,’ Tony went on, struggling to be generous. ‘My guys would have given anything to keep that story alive.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to probe, but then he didn’t. ‘So what can I do for you? You obviously got further than we did.’

The corners of Josh’s mouth turned upward. He still found it hard to believe. The e-mail had arrived in his in-box two days ago, its provenance untraceable. I have information about the Millennium fire, it read. It relates to Presto Omnishops Corporation. Hours later, when the rest of DC was asleep, Josh had met a man at the Lincoln Memorial who gave him the names of workers and factories in three countries, including the name of the girl in the photograph. The man had divulged nothing of his motives, but his seniority inside Presto was beyond question, as was his charge: he wanted Josh to make Presto pay.

‘This thing dropped into my lap,’ Josh said. ‘That’s all I can say. But I need your help. I need to find a fixer in Dhaka with high-level contacts in the apparel industry.’

Tony spoke without hesitation. ‘Rana Jalil. Except he’s in Los Angeles these days.’

Josh gave him a confused look, and Tony clarified, ‘Rana’s a mutt like me. His father owns one of the oldest garment companies in Bangladesh. His mother is Bangladeshi, but she was born in California. He has a law degree from UCLA. Dhaka’s his backyard. He helped us cover the Rana Plaza disaster. He’s an ace, and 100 percent trustworthy.’

Josh took another swig of beer. ‘What’s he doing in LA?’

Tony chuckled. ‘Shining a light into the dark hole of American fast fashion.’

Josh made no attempt to disguise his ignorance. ‘Explain.’

‘You know those teenybopper stores in the mall, the ones that dress their mannequins like hookers and make you want to keep Lily under lock and key?’

Josh nodded. Lily was his eight-year-old daughter and the light of his life. He was an absentee father, but not completely derelict.

‘A lot of the clothes they peddle are made in sweatshops in LA. The fashion companies know about it, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. So long as they keep feeding American teens a fad a week, they see it as the cost of doing business. Rana freelances with a public interest group called La Alternativa Legal, or “LA Legal.” They represent the workers in court. California has a labor law that gives them firepower against the brands. I don’t really understand it. But I know he’s nailing them to the wall.’

‘I’ll take him,’ Josh said. ‘Can you make the introduction?’

Tony whipped a smartphone out of his jeans and started typing.

‘He’ll be tickled. The great Joshua Griswold. He might even give you a discount since you’re out of work at the moment.’ After he transmitted the message, he got the waiter’s attention and ordered another round of drinks. Then he stared at his watch intently. ‘I’ll give him one minute, then I call.’

‘What?’ Josh didn’t know anyone that quick on the draw.

‘Wait. Ha! There he is.’ Tony held out his wrist and showed Josh his smartwatch. On the screen was a text from Rana. ‘He’s thrilled, as promised.’

Josh shook his head, marveling at the speed of new media. ‘I owe you one.’

Tony’s eyes sparkled, his lips askew in a beer-tinged smile. ‘You owe me nothing. I want this as much as you do. You break this story, I mean really break it, and I’ll see what I can do about getting your job back.’

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Extract: THE GIRL BEFORE by J. P. Delaney

9781786480293 THE GIRL BEFORE

J.P. Delaney

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release of J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before, I’m very pleased to host a brief extract from the book. Be sure to follow the full Blog Tour. Yesterday’s post can be found at www.heatherreviews.com and tomorrow’s will be available at off-the-shelfbooks.blogspot.co.uk. You can find full details of the whole tour in the image at the bottom of this post.

Then: Emma

It’s a lovely little flat, the letting agent says with what could almost pass for genuine enthusiasm. Close to the amenities. And you’ve got that private bit of roof. That could become a sun terrace, subject of course to the freeholder’s consent.

Nice, Simon agrees, trying not to catch my eye. I’d known the flat was no good as soon as I saw that six-foot stretch of roof below one of the windows. Si knows it too but he doesn’t want to tell the agent, or at least not so soon it’ll seem rude. He might even hope that if I listen to the man’s stupid patter long enough I’ll waver.

The agent’s Simon’s kind of bloke: sharp, laddish, eager. He probably reads the magazine Simon works for. They were exchanging football chat before we even got up the stairs.

And here you’ve got a decent-size bedroom, the agent’s saying. With ample—

It’s no good, I interrupt, cutting short the charade. It’s not right for us.

The agent raises his eyebrows. You can’t be too choosy in this market, he says. This’ll be gone by tonight. Five viewings today, and it’s not even on our website yet.

It’s not secure enough, I say flatly. Shall we go?

There are locks on all the windows, he points out. Plus a Chubb on the door. You could always install a burglar alarm, if security’s a particular concern. I don’t think the landlord would have any objection.

He’s talking across me now, to Simon. Particular concern. He might as well have said, Oh, is the girlfriend a bit of a drama queen?

I’ll wait outside, I say, turning to leave.

Realising he’s blundered, the agent adds, If it’s the area that’s the problem, perhaps you should have a think further west.

We already have, Simon says. It’s all out of our budget. Apart from the ones the size of a teabag.

He’s trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, but the fact that he needs to riles me even more.

There’s a one-bed in Queen’s Park, the agent says. A bit grotty, but . . .

We looked at it, Simon says. In the end, we felt it was just a bit too close to that estate.

His tone makes it clear that we means she.

Or there’s a third-floor just come on in Kilburn—

That too. There was a drainpipe next to one of the windows.

The agent looks puzzled.

Someone could have climbed it, Simon explains.

Right. Well, the letting season’s only just started. Perhaps if you wait a bit.

The agent has clearly decided we’re time-wasters. He too is sidling towards the door. I go and stand outside, on the landing, so he won’t come near me.

We’ve already given notice on our old place, I hear Simon say. We’re running out of options. He lowers his voice. Look, mate, we were burgled. Five weeks ago. Two men broke in and threatened Emma with a knife. You can see why she’d be a bit jumpy.

Oh, the agent says. Shit. If someone did that to my girlfriend I don’t know what I’d do. Look, this might be a long shot, but . . .

His voice trails off.

Yes? Simon says.

Has anyone at the office mentioned One Folgate Street to you?

I don’t think so. Has it just come on?

Not exactly, no.

The agent seems unsure whether to pursue this or not.

But it’s available? Simon persists.

Technically, yes, the agent says. And it’s a fantastic property. Absolutely fantastic. In a different league to this. But the landlord’s . . . To say he’s particular would be putting it mildly.

What area? Simon asks.

Hampstead, the agent says. Well, more like Hendon. But it’s really quiet.

Em? Simon calls.

I go back inside. We might as well take a look, I say. We’re halfway there now.

The agent nods. I’ll stop by the office, he says. See if I can locate the details. It’s been a while since I took anyone round, actually. It’s not a place that would suit just anyone. But I think it might be right up your street. Sorry, no pun intended.

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DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb

DEED DOWN DEAD BF AW.indd DEEP DOWN DEAD

Steph Broadribb (crimethrillergirl.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Against her better judgement, bounty hunter Lori Anderson takes the only job Quinn can offer. Overdue rent and sky-high medical bills conspire to leave her with no choice. The fugitive? Robert “JT” Tate, Lori’s former lover and mentor, a man now involved in a child exploitation racket run out of one of Florida’s most famous theme parks, a man who knows her deepest, darkest secrets, and one she hasn’t seen for almost a decade. To make matters worse, lack of childminders means that Lori has to take Dakota, her nine-year-old daughter, along for the ride. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer: everything. Which is excellent news for the reader, because Deep Down Dead grabs you almost from the word go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the duration. The action moves at lightning pace, jumping from one explosive set-piece to another, leaving the reader little time to breathe in between, let alone try to second guess what’s coming on the next page, in the next chapter. Steph Broadribb’s debut novel introduces the world to Florida-based bail runner Lori Anderson, and leaves us gasping for more as we turn the last page.

Anderson leaps fully-formed from the page when we first meet her, a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails protagonist with a quick tongue and a narrative voice that makes it difficult to put the book down once it’s been opened. While her job may be more dangerous than most, Lori comes across as a real, grounded person, because she’s facing the same trials and tribulations that many do: trying to balance work with life as a single mother; constant debt; relationship woes. It is perhaps this grounded nature more than anything else that endears her to us, and makes us want to find out more about her. Her relationship with her daughter is wonderful, Dakota in many ways a miniature version of her mother; her relationship with JT is something else, and its history is revealed to us in drips and drabs as the story progresses.

From the moment JT enters the story, things take a turn for the dark, leaving the reader in no doubt that something is not quite what it seems. What should have been a straightforward pick-up and return to jail turns into a deadly cat and mouse chase that will test Lori’s loyalties and her strength to the limit. Chased by not one, but two groups intent on ending JT’s life, regardless of the collateral damage, Lori’s small group makes a break for Florida, a deadline to meet and countless obstacles between them and their destination.

While much of the action takes place outside of Florida, the Sunshine State plays a central role in the proceedings, but not the version that is open to tourists. Broadribb delves into the darker side of the state and of the theme parks that are its biggest attraction, in the form of the fictional Winter Wonderland. Fictional or not, the criminal activity being run in the park is both frightening and horribly plausible, the sort of plot point that will cause any parent to stop and think about just how easy it would be. Broadribb takes an unflinching approach to telling the story, and its gritty realism is only one of the many selling points of this excellent debut.

Like all the best thriller writers, Broadribb doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to character development, and certainly doesn’t let the bad guys pull any punches when they’re beating up her protagonist. There’s an almost sadistic glee as Lori – and to a lesser extent, the other characters – gets put through the mill and ends up bruised and battered in the course of the story. The resulting novel is dark, intense and action-packed though filled with the wit and charisma of a fresh new author and her lifelike creation.

Fellow book blogger Steph Broadribb’s debut novel is one of the finest you’re likely to read this year. A great introduction to a wonderful new series character, Deep Down Dead is a suspense-filled, action-packed thriller that leaves the reader wanting more, and proves that this debut author has the chops to stand alongside the giants of the crime thriller genre. Expect Steph Broadribb and Lori Anderson to be household names in the near future; in the meantime, get on at the ground floor. I can guarantee you won’t come away disappointed.

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GUEST POST: Inspiration for Devour by L.A. LARKIN

Devour LA Larkin - jacket image Name: L.A. LARKIN

Author of: DEVOUR (2017)

On the web: lalarkin.com

On Twitter: @lalarkinauthor

To celebrate the launch of L.A. Larkin’s latest novel, Devour, the first in a series featuring journalist Olivia Wolfe, I am very pleased to have the author at Reader Dad as part of the #DevourTheBook Blog Tour, to talk about her inspiration for the novel.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

Devour is the first book in the Olivia Wolfe thriller series. It is an unusual action and conspiracy thriller for two reasons: firstly, it has a female central character, and secondly, it is set in a part of the world where very few thrillers have been set – Antarctica.

More often than not, the lead character in this style of thriller is male. Think James Rollins, Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Clive Cussler, and most assassin-thrillers such as those by David Baldacci and Tom Wood. In my character, Olivia Wolfe, I wanted to create a dynamic, intriguing and credible female protagonist, who could hold her own in dangerous situations. I also wanted this character to have a legitimate need to travel all over the world so that each book could offer a new and exhilarating location.

I have always been a huge fan of The Sunday Times’ investigative journalist, Marie Colvin, who strived to reveal the truth about what was happening in war zones. She was an incredibly brave woman who tragically died in the bombardment of Homs in Syria in 2012. It was her courage that inspired the creation of investigative journalist, Olivia Wolfe, in Devour, although everything else about Wolfe has come from my imagination.

I have been lucky enough to go to Antarctica and I was so mesmerised by its savage beauty and the ever-present threat that such a dangerous location provides, I knew it was the perfect setting for a chiller thriller.

Scientific developments often fuel my stories. I also follow news on expeditions to Antarctica. One particular mission was to become the premise of Devour. In 2012, a British team set up camp above sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth in a very remote part of Antarctica. Their mission was to drill down through three kilometres of ice in the hope they might discover life in an ancient lake cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. Sadly, the team did not manage to reach the buried lake and called off the expedition. But, the question remains: what if there is ancient life down there, and, what if it was catastrophic to bring it to the surface?

L.A. Larkin’s thriller, Devour, is published by Constable at the end of January 2017. Peter James, says Devour ‘delivers action and intrigue in spades,’ and Culturefly says, ‘If you are only going to read one novel in 2017, I suggest you make it Devour.’

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