Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



GUEST POST: Writing Short Stories by Orlando Ortega-Medina


Author of: JERUSALEM ABLAZE (2017)

On the web:

On Twitter: OOrtegaMedina

To celebrate the launch of his excellent debut short story collection, Jerusalem Ablaze, I’m very pleased to welcome Orlando Ortega-Medina to Reader Dad to talk about writing short stories.

I don’t have one specific method of writing the first draft of a short story. For example, I was inspired to write “Torture By Roses” after reading Yukio Mishima’s short story “Swaddling Clothes” in his collection Death in Midsummer. In that particular case, my aim was to write my own imagined backstory for Mishima’s story, and I composed it in my head before I wrote down a single word. In the case of “Jerusalem Ablaze”, I woke up from a nightmare, grabbed the steno pad that sits on my nightstand, and started writing, half-asleep. Two hours later I had my first draft of the story.

Jacket ImageMy Quebec stories “The Shovelist” and “Tiger at Beaufort Point” were inspired by real-life events, so there was some pre-planning at the starting point to ensure the events were properly fictionalised. This involved drafting character sketches and plot outlines, which I used, in effect, to re-invent reality. And my Israel stories are excerpts from an early novel I was composing, so they didn’t start life as short stories at all.

“After The Storm” is the story I pre-planned the most, in that I fully sketched it out in outline from start to finish before attacking the prose. Interestingly, it’s also the story I revised the most, almost interminably. Each time I re-read it I found something to improve, all the way until the day I was meant to turn it over to the publisher. But it was worth it, and I’m very pleased with the way turned out.

Regardless of how my short stories start their lives, my process for completing them is the same for all of them: I set them aside for a few days, then come back and revise them until they are as perfect as they’re going to be. To achieve this I have to be brutal in my revision process and not be afraid to cut out anything that doesn’t work. That being said, one has to know when to stop revising!

As for having a word-count, I aim to write no less than 1000 words a day, 5 days a week, with a goal of producing 10,000 publishable words per month. One can’t very well call oneself a writer unless one actually writes. So: Write – Everyday – No excuses.

Jerusalem Ablaze – Stories of Love and Other Obsessions is out now from Cloud Lodge Books, priced £12.99.


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LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent

Lying%20in%20Wait LYING IN WAIT

Liz Nugent (

Penguin Random House (


Andrew Fitzsimons is a respected judge in the Dublin Criminal Courts system. He and his reclusive wife have been forced to kill a young woman and her body is now buried in their back garden. While Lydia seems to be in control of the situation, Andrew’s life begins to fall apart, especially when he suspects that their seventeen-year-old son, Laurence, knows what they have done. As the families of both the murderers and their victim fall apart, Laurence becomes obsessed with the identity of the dead girl. When a chance meeting brings the two families into contact with each other, it can’t be long until disaster strikes, especially not if Lydia has her way.

Liz Nugent’s second novel, Lying in Wait, opens with the murder of young Annie Doyle and spends the next three hundred pages slowly reeling the reader into a twisted and cleverly-structured thriller that has surprises at every turn. Alternating between the first-person views of Lydia (the wife of the murderer), Laurence (their son) and Karen (the sister of Annie), it first of all describes the havoc wreaked on the two families involved, before morphing into something very different, a dark and disturbing examination of obsession and madness and an answer, once and for all, to the question of whether blood is thicker than water.

We witness the crime through the eyes of Lydia, and it is here in this early moment of unguardedness that we see the truth of the matter: how Annie Doyle died, and how her body was disposed. It doesn’t take us long to realise that Lydia is a dangerous woman: manipulative and more than a little unhinged, it is clear that she has engineered the circumstances that led to Annie Doyle’s death. Her husband starts to fall apart almost immediately, not helped by Lydia’s demands that, should they be caught, he takes the full blame, for the best interests of their teenage son. Lydia has a dark past, one that might explain her disconnection from reality, and one that is slowly revealed, along with the reasons for Annie Doyle’s demise as the story progresses.

Laurence catches on quick that something is wrong, and immediately jumps to the obvious conclusion. His hatred of his father is fuelled by his father’s insensitivity about Laurence’s weight, and by his mother’s seeming innocence in the whole affair. This is the first real glimpse we catch of Lydia’s ability to manipulate and control the situation, but it still cannot prepare us for what is yet to come. Karen, meanwhile, a similar age to Laurence, gives us some insight into the family of the victim. With no body, there is no evidence that her sister is dead, though her disappearance has a profound effect on her family, tearing her parents apart and leaving Karen herself with an undeserved reputation when it is revealed that Annie was a heroin addict and prostitute. The lead detective on the case, O’Toole, is more interested in getting into Karen’s knickers than in finding what happened to her sister, and it is only five years later that she learns that the police did have a suspect but didn’t pursue the matter because he was a person of some power, and O’Toole was unwilling to rattle any cages.

The three threads of the story interweave and ultimately meet as the years pass, and no further word of Annie is heard. Laurence, twenty-three and still under the full control of his mother, becomes a hero with whom we can identify. Despite the terrible things he agrees to do in order to protect his family, we still feel that he deserves a good life, something that he is unlikely to achieve living in the shadow of Lydia. A chance encounter and a big heart find Laurence attempting to make amends for the actions of his father, little more than a token gesture, but as much as he can do until his friendship with Annie’s father leads to an introduction to his surviving daughter.

Lying in Wait is so well constructed that we never question the often outlandish turns of events, instead revelling in the twists and turns and ever-darkening tone of the story. This is, more than anything, Lydia’s story, and we watch, often in horror, as she manipulates her husband, her son and anyone else who comes into close proximity to protect herself, her home, and her family name. A masterful creation, her complex history has produced a woman who is quite clearly insane and who, once she sets her sights on something, will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Liz Nugent’s writing is beautiful, the voices of the three narrators perfectly pitched, the quirks and tics we might expect in their speech beautifully translated to the written form. From the opening page, Nugent holds the reader in the palm of her hands, so the gut-punch she delivers as the novel draws to a close feels like a physical thing, leaving the reader stunned and disbelieving, emotionally drained yet already hoping for more more MORE! I missed Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver, when it came out in 2014, but it’s definitely on my must-read list even as I try to recover from the effects of this one. An incredible novel, Lying in Wait is a lightning-fast read that should be an essential item for anyone packing for holiday. It cements Liz Nugent’s place as one of Ireland’s finest living novelists, and places her, at the very least, on this reader’s “must-read” list.


END OF WATCH by Stephen King


Stephen King (

Hodder & Stoughton (


It has been almost seven years since the City Center Massacre, that fateful April morning when Brady Hartfield drove a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting to attend a job fair in the heartland of recession-struck America. When a worrying trend develops for survivors of that terrible tragedy to commit suicide, Pete Huntley – a police detective on the verge of retirement, and saddled with a partner harbouring grand ambitions – calls his old partner, Bill Hodges, and asks him to take a look. Hodges has long been convinced that he wasn’t finished with Brady Hartfield and is immediately convinced that Mr Mercedes is behind this latest series of deaths. The only problem is that Brady Hartsfield has been residing in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for six years, unresponsive and unlikely to recover.

It is a little under two years since the publication of Stephen King’s first Bill Hodges novel, Mr Mercedes, but this third visit to the retired detective and his friends feels like we are returning to visit an old and well-loved friend, perhaps for the final time. Bill, now approaching seventy and suffering from aches and pains that his younger self might have shrugged off – when the book opens, we meet Bill in the waiting room of his doctor’s surgery – is still running investigation firm Finders Keepers along with Holly Gibney, whom he met as a direct result of the events of that long-ago April morning. While his regular visits to Brady Hartfield’s hospital room stopped over six months before, his conviction that the man has been in some way faking is still as strong as ever, so that when his old partner calls his first thought is that Brady has somehow been responsible for the deaths of these people, people who survived his first attempt to kill them outside the City Center Job Fair.

King laid much of the groundwork for this final instalment in the trilogy’s middle chapter, Finders Keepers, when he introduced the reader to the possibility of Brady having telekinetic powers. This is developed further as End of Watch proceeds, and we learn that the ability to move objects with his mind might be the least of the abilities that Brady has gained since his encounter with Hodges’ “Happy Slapper”, in a move that takes us out of the realms of straight crime and back into the world of the unknown that we, as Stephen King readers, have come to know so well over the years. The presence of the Zappit, an out-dated gaming tablet with a decidedly hypnotic demo screen, in the possession of each of the suicides is the final connection that convinces Hodges that he is right in his suspicions, and leaves him with the question of how to prove such an outlandish theory.

End of Watch brings the story of Bill Hodges and Brady Hartfield full circle, pitting them against each other once again in an old-fashioned battle of good against evil. The intervening years have been less than kind to both men, so that the outcome is uncertain even as the novel approaches its final climactic scenes. It continues the theme of obsession that has run through the entire series, as each man seems out to get the other at the exclusion of all else. What sets them apart, what makes one good and one evil, seems to come down to how they interact with other people: Bill loves his two friends, Holly and Jerome, and is loved dearly by them in return; Brady, meanwhile, uses the people around him to get what he needs and discards them like ragdolls when he is finished. As always, the strength of King’s novels lies in his unparalleled ability to create characters with whom we can identify, and who become living, breathing entities as the story progresses; End of Watch, and the entire Bill Hodges Trilogy, is no exception.

King places strong emphasis on suicide throughout the novel, and even highlights its presence in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Suicide has played a part in Brady Hartfield’s adventures before: his original plan was to convince Hodges to end his own life shortly after the detective retired. End of Watch takes a look at his strange ability to be able to read people and to get under their skin, to prod them gently in the direction of their own demise by their own hand. Given his current vegetative state, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of how Brady can take his revenge and continue his killing spree. In a world where suicide rates are high as a result of bullying and its more modern cousin, cyber bullying, it is at once instantly believable and frightening in the very real sense of the word.

With End of Watch King also examines old age, and the betrayal it brings with it. We never knew Bill Hodges as a young man, though the many ways in which his body have begun letting him down as he approaches seventy drive home for us the fact that he is well advanced in years and that, despite fighting on the side of good for at least as long as we’ve known him, he is facing an inevitability that will come to us all should we live that long. There is a feeling that King is writing from a position of experience, and the reader can’t help but wonder if it’s a means for the author to examine – and to begin to come to terms with – his own mortality.

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

SAVAGE LANE by Jason Starr

Savage-Lane-cover SAVAGE LANE

Jason Starr (

No Exit Press (


Mark and Deb Berman’s marriage has hit a rough patch: she believes he’s having an affair with their next door neighbour, Karen. That may not be the case, but it doesn’t stop Mark constructing a rich fantasy life for Karen and himself, and the fact that everyone else in town believes the same thing as Deb doesn’t make things any easier. But Deb has a secret of her own, one that will prove fatal for her, and will put Karen at the mercy not only of her delusional husband, but of someone much more dangerous.

Welcome to Savage Lane, an exclusive address in the rich New York town of Westchester. This is were Mark and Deb Berman live with their children, and where Karen Daily has settled following her recent divorce with her own two kids. From the outset, we can feel the tension as a palpable force, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are far from good between Mark and Deb, and that next-door neighbour Karen is at the centre of their troubles.

While the plot sounds like something from Dynasty, Starr blindsides us almost immediately by showing us what’s going on in Mark’s head: there is an obsessive quality to his thoughts about Karen, and their relationship – nothing more, in her eyes, than simple friendship – takes on a much deeper meaning, as he misinterprets their closeness – text messages, pet names – for something much more than it is. It’s an unsettling look into the mind-set of the true obsessive, and leaves the reader feeling more than a little uncomfortable as we find ourselves following him down this dark path. His obvious desire for Karen, and his reactions to the inevitable joking that this will bring from friends and colleagues lead people to believe that something is actually going on between them, and all the talk only serves to prove to Mark that there is more here than friendship.

Mark’s wife, Deb, can’t help but hear these rumours, and when she sees Mark holding Karen’s hand, it’s easy for her to make the leap from rumour to fact. What makes Deb so interesting is that, despite attempting to take the moral high ground, she doesn’t have a leg to stand on: Deb is having an affair of her own – a real affair – with a young man who may be more dangerous than her obsessive husband. When she attempts to break the affair off, things take a sudden dark turn, and her boyfriend’s attention, too, is soon focussed on Karen.

There is something very over-the-top about almost every aspect of Savage Lane, from the writing style to the myriad affairs and relationships that pepper the story, which at times stretch our credibility to the limit. But what Starr achieves in the midst of all this, is a brilliant examination of the obsessive mind at work. From very early in the novel, the reader is aware of the fact that there is something lacking in Mark Berman’s makeup, something important that should make him “human”; it’s a portrait that leaves us cold and unsettled, that reminds us that evil is most often found in the most mundane of places, a portrait that will make us re-evaluate everyone we know.

Savage Lane is not without its problems. For me, the biggest of these is the fact that Starr is not content with giving us one obsessive. While the introduction of Owen Harrison allows him to show the difference between the man who is obsessive in thought only, and the man who has taken the dangerous step across the line into violence and murder, it’s a stretch to believe that they might exist in the same small town, and be involved with the same two women. It’s a fairly major plot point, and asks a little too much of the reader given the story’s otherwise solid grounding in reality.

Despite its flaws, Savage Lane is a well-rounded and thought-provoking psychological thriller. Dark and unsettling, its strengths lie in the author’s ability to imagine the worst and present it as acceptable in the mind of his protagonist. A tale of love, lust and obsession, it draws the reader in and manages to convey, using alternating viewpoints, both the mundaneness of suburban life, and the evils that lurk within the minds of seemingly respectable people. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for the duration of the novel, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable and engaging read by an author with a surprising – and not always in the most pleasant sense of the word – insight into the human condition.



Stephen King (

Hodder & Stoughton (


“Shit don’t mean shit.”

In 1978 reclusive American literary great John Rothstein is murdered in the remote New Hampshire farm where he has spent the past 16 years. His safe is emptied, not only of the cash that he keeps there, but also of 150 or so notebooks which are believed to contain at least one new novel and countless short stories and story fragments. Morris Bellamy, the man who has just shot John Rothstein, considers himself the author’s biggest fan, whose only friend during his formative years was Rothstein’s greatest creation, Jimmy Gold. When Bellamy’s friend Andy Halliday refuses to help him sell on the notebooks – once Morris has read them, of course – Bellamy buries books and money in a trunk and promptly finds himself serving life in prison for a drink-fuelled rape that he has no memory of committing.

Thirty years later, Pete Saubers finds Bellamy’s trunk and recognises the value not only of the countless envelopes of money, but also of the notebooks that have remained hidden for so long. Tom Saubers, Pete’s father, is a victim of the recession and, to add insult to injury, is one of the people in line for the City Center Job Fair on that fateful morning when Brady Hartfield ploughs through it in a stolen Mercedes. When Pete approaches Andrew Halliday to try to sell Rothstein’s notebooks, he has no idea that it will coincide with Morris Bellamy’s parole. And Morris has waited thirty-five years to find out what happened to Jimmy Gold after Rothstein’s last published novel.

The first third of Stephen King’s latest novel, the follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Mr Mercedes, alternates between Morris Bellamy in 1978, and Pete Saubers as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws to a close, and the second sees a whole new life for his financially-strapped family. As well as giving us an in-depth insight into Morris Bellamy’s obsession, a different type of madness than drove Brady Hartfield, but no less dangerous in the long run, this section allows us to revisit the terrible Mercedes killings, and view the aftermath from the point of view of one of the survivors, and his young family. As always, King’s insight into the mind of Joe Q Public is second-to-none and we feel the pain and stress that threatens to tear the Saubers family apart, and understand the relief they feel when anonymous envelopes of money begin to appear in the mailbox.

Finders Keepers also, of course, sees the return of Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, retired City Police Detective who now runs the eponymous investigation company. He is approached by Pete’s little sister, who believes that the anonymous money has come from her brother, and that he may have done something bad to obtain it in the first place. Finding ourselves in the company of Bill once again – not to mention his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome – is like finding ourselves in the company of an entertaining old friend. Hodges has changed much in the four years since the events of Mr Mercedes, not all for the good, but his mind is as sharp as ever and he is still a believable protagonist in the hands of King.

This second outing for Hodges et al takes a slightly different approach than the first. Instead of the straight crime novel we might have expected, King has injected Finders Keepers with a number of elements that bode ill for our heroes in the third book of the trilogy, and which are of a decidedly otherwordly origin. There are links here to King’s other works that are more overt than Mr Mercedes’ links to the likes of Christine and It: the number on the door of Brady Hartfield’s hospital room, for example, or the strange occurrences reported by the hospital staff, and the unforgettable clack! that will send a shiver down every Constant Reader’s spine. Hodges’ world is maybe not as close to ours as we imagined after reading Mr Mercedes, but is perhaps on a different level of the Dark Tower altogether.

There is a more obvious connection to one of King’s early greats: Morris Bellamy’s obsession with John Rothstein pales in comparison with that of Annie Wilkes for Paul Sheldon, but there are certainly parallels. Both have become so emotionally attached to their respective authors’ creations – Jimmy Gold for Bellamy; Misery Chastain for Wilkes – that any deviation from their idealised view of that character sends them into a murderous rage. Unlike Wilkes, Bellamy shoots Jimmy Gold’s creator in the head and hopes that the character’s salvation lies within the pages of the many notebooks that Rothstein has filled during his sixteen-year reclusion. The fact that Bellamy will have to wait over thirty years before he will get a chance to see what is in those notebooks is the ultimate irony. King is no stranger to obsessive fans, and he channels this knowledge into making Bellamy’s madness not only believable, but extremely frightening. And the appearance of the word “do-bee” will give anyone who has read Misery a severe dose of the willies.

A tale of obsession and family loyalty, Finders Keepers follows a similar formula to Mr Mercedes: a slow start (aside from the first chapter) during which we get to meet the main characters, leading to a fast-paced and intense climax during which nothing is guaranteed and both obsession – Bellamy’s need to see what is in the notebooks a driving force which blots out everything else – and family loyalty are put to the test. This is classic King: a character-driven story that worms its way deep into the reader’s life through the author’s grasp of how people work. Hodges and friends play a less central role than they did in their previous outing – the main story here concerns the parallels between Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers – but King is laying groundwork for the trilogy’s closing chapter, preparing for an epic battle between good and evil that is likely to rival The Stand.

Finders Keepers is yet another unmissable addition to the King canon, a work that focuses on story and character rather than genre. An in-depth examination of the nature of obsession, something that King has looked at many times before, most notably in Misery, this is a beautifully-written novel that makes us empathise with Morris Bellamy while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from him at all costs: “that’s not me!” we tell ourselves, but we’re left with the disturbing question of what we would do ourselves were we in Morris Bellamy’s shoes. This is Stephen King at his best, a writer with no equal producing work that continues to surprise, delight and horrify in equal measure.

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