Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


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image001 Name: MATT WESOLOWSKI

Author of: SIX STORIES (2017)

On Twitter: ConcreteKraken

It’s taken me years to find my own voice.

I’ve spent the majority of my writing life mimicking; from a bargain-bin Enid Blyton when I was a kid, a teenage cut-price James Herbert to a snide Stephen King or else 50% off all Lovecraft, eldritch savings that will loose the trappings of your puny earthly ideals of sanity!

It’s only been in the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve felt my own writing voice has really emerged. I imagine this must be fairly common; as writers, we’d love to think we’re true mavericks but in reality we have no choice but to climb the shoulders of the literary giants that have strode the land before us. I am not ashamed of this mimicry and even now, I’ll turn a phrase that sounds Lovecraftian, or King-ish and that’s ok.

I do feel like I am still learning my craft, that my voice is still evolving, changing, synchronising a little with every good book I read. It is as the great man himself says

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King.

Without reading, and reading widely, I feel like I just cannot write with any degree of integrity; it feels like a day without a cup of tea (tantamount to criminality in my opinion.). When a book hits me where it hurts, its language sinking and dissolving inside your brain like linguistic effervescence, it raises the bar, galvanises me to strive to that level of quality.

When I started writing my first tentative short stories as a just-teenager, James Herbert and Clive Barker’s mastery descriptions of the grotesque were revelatory. Back then I read little else but horror, forever trying to slide the fear in between the words like these masters, their stories underpinned by longing, love, things I was not mature enough to fathom…most girls didn’t like long-haired oddballs who wore black nail varnish and wrote stories back then…

Then in my late teens I discovered the work of Jon King – ‘The Football Factory’, the subject perhaps not befitting of a teenage goth, yet the sheer command of language astounded me and showed me a new way of writing, stream-of-consciousness brutality that enveloped me utterly. I longed for more like this and found the work of Kevin Sampson – ‘Awaydays’ was both savage and beautiful and Niall Griffiths whose ‘Grits’ and ‘Kelly and Victor’ still haunt me today.

Through my 20s, I read all of Stephen King’s back catalogue, everything by Lovecraft (I was a latecomer to Cthulhu) and now as I read more (and much more expansively), every book that does something to me emotionally, helps weave another thread into the voice that has emerged from inside. Lauren Beukes and Yrsa Sigurðadottir were more of those revelatory writers that pushed at genre conventions; straddling the places between crime and the supernatural and gave me a galvanic push to try the same.

Karen Sullivan, the phenomenon behind Orenda Books guided me to more of the Nordic noir, namely Kati Hiekkapelto and Antti Tuomainen whose work had a profound influence on my own. Like their Scandinavian neighbours, the Finns have a way with words that I cannot put my finger on; something to do with telling it simply, yet with profound poetry hanging from every phrase.

I feel like my own voice, my influences are in a constant state of flux; I just recently read ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline and ‘Girls on Fire’ by Robin Wasserman…writing is often a difficult pursuit, there are times when you feel a little hollow and word-weary yet reading the above titles were like bellows to the flames.

I guess influences don’t stop, as much as learning doesn’t stop. I can’t wait to see what inspires me next!


DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb


Steph Broadribb (

Orenda Books (


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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The Best Writers Are Onion Peelers by MICHAEL GROTHAUS

Mike_portraits_22Apr16-1 Name: MICHAEL GROTHAUS

Author of: EPIPHANY JONES (2016)

On the web:

On Twitter: @michaelgrothaus

Epiphany Jones, I’ve been told, is hard to categorize. When I ask people who have read it what kind of book they think it is they’ve replied “psychological thriller”, “literary fiction”, “crime”, “social satire”, “dark comedy”, “transgressive fiction”, and “a redemption story”.

Indeed, the story has elements of all those classifications: a page-turning plot (thriller) featuring a narrator named Jerry who is the personification of our society’s addiction to celebrity and sex (literary fiction, social satire). Jerry lives an isolating life (transgressive fiction) because he suffers from psychotic delusions—he sees people who don’t really exist (psychological thriller, dark comedy). When Jerry is framed for the murder of a colleague and theft of a Van Gogh painting (crime) by a woman who believes she talks to God, his life goes from bad to worse as he becomes entangled in this woman’s war with a sex trafficking ring that caters to the Hollywood elite–one that has links to his past Jerry could never have imagined (redemption story).

So yes, all of the classifications above are right. Epiphany Jones is a novel that explores the horrors of sex trafficking, isolation, and addiction on many different levels. In that way, it’s like an onion: peel back one layer only to find another. And for me, as a reader, the best books have always been onions and, as a writer, the novelists that have most influenced me are the ones who know how to peel those layers back. When I think of good “onion peelers” who have influenced my writing I think of a handful of novelists over the last 90 years whose stories work on so many different levels.

The most recent is Alex Garland, the British novelist who gave us The Beach. On first glance it’s a fun travel yarn–the story of Richard who leaves the UK to go off to have a fun holiday abroad. Peel back a layer, however, and the story becomes a commentary on the effects of mass media from the 90s. Peel back another layer and the story shifts to an examination of the animalistic nature that lies in all of us, and easily arises again soon after societal constrains are stripped away. And all of this is packaged in a page-turning thriller.

Almost a decade before Garland wrote The Beach, the Scottish novelist and journalist Gilbert Adair published a little-known novel called The Holy Innocents (the book is perhaps better known by the title given to it after it was made into a movie–The Dreamers). This is another onion. On the surface it’s a psychological drama about an American student’s adventure overseas studying in France–a story about both his cultural and sexual awakenings. Peel that layer back, and the same story is about the power of film and art to stir social change. Yet peel another layer back and the exact same story is revealed to be about the self-obsession of youth and the irreconcilability between the often stated desire of the young to “make a difference in the world” yet being too self-absorbed to actually recognize major events happening right outside their door. The Holy Innocents is a political commentary and cultural examination of youth packaged as one hell of a psychological drama.

Now jump back to the 1930s and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. On the surface, a science fiction novel. Set 500 years in the future it envisions the peace, stability, and health technology will one day bring us, but go one layer deeper and it becomes clear that Huxley was commenting on the anxieties of the 20th century, particularly worry among some how mass production and technological advances could strip away our individual identities. Peel another layer away and you realize that Brave New World isn’t just a science fiction story, nor only a social satire, it’s also a parody—it’s making fun of popular escapism novels of the day set in utopias. Science fiction, social commentary, and parody–all layered into one story.

There are plenty of other examples I could name, of course, but I think you get the point. The best novels are onions–and the onion peelers listed above have had a tremendous influence on my writing.

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EPIPHANY JONES by Michael Grothaus

Epiphany Jones A/W.indd EPIPHANY JONES

Michael Grothaus (

Orenda Books (


Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.

Jerry Dresden is something of a loner. Obsessed with sex and celebrity – and, very often, both at the same time – he spends his days working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his nights in front of the computer, hunting down the latest faked images of the world’s most famous women. When one of his colleagues is murdered and a Van Gogh on loan to the Institute is stolen, suspicion quickly falls on Jerry. But he’s fairly sure he’s innocent. And when he meets Epiphany, a young woman who says she needs his help, he knows for certain he’s in deep trouble: Epiphany is the killer and the thief, and she has framed Jerry to ensure his cooperation. It doesn’t help that Epiphany thinks she talks to God. Following Epiphany from Chicago to Mexico, and from there to Europe – because of the promise of evidence of his innocence that Epiphany has in her possession – Jerry finds himself at the centre of a sex-trafficking scandal organised by Hollywood’s most powerful people, and unlocks dark memories that he has buried for almost twenty years.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when it comes to sex in fiction, I’m not a big fan, especially when it doesn’t really (seem to) add much to the story at hand. So, for the first third of Michael Grothaus’ debut novel, I found myself constantly on the verge of packing it in. The novel’s opening line, above, more or less sums up the story’s central character, Jerry, a man who has taken masturbation to a whole new level, and who revels in sharing the details with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, Jerry is a funny guy, and finds himself in the middle of an intriguing mystery with an intense young woman for whom the word “captivating” seems to have been invented. So I persevered, and I would urge anyone who finds themselves in the same position to do the same. There is a point, around about the one-third mark where it feels like a switch has been flicked: the narrative takes on a much darker hue, and Jerry’s obsession takes a back seat to a new obsession with staying alive.

Told in the first person from Jerry’s point of view, the story gives us time to get to know our guide before throwing him in at the deep end. After losing his younger sister to leukaemia as a young boy, and being involved in the car accident that ended his father’s life, Jerry has gone off the rails. He suffers from delusions, often seeing people who aren’t there, and has a reputation with the people at work for inventing girlfriends. It comes as a great surprise to Jerry, then, when he discovers that Epiphany is, in fact, real. Unfortunately for him, her interest in him is not what he might have hoped for, and before long she is leading him on a dangerous journey across the world, all because the voices in her head told her that he could help.

In Jerry’s mind – and thus in the reader’s – Epiphany becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who believes she has a direct line to God, and is on a mission that he has sanctioned. In stark contrast to Jerry’s comedic persona, Epiphany is a tortured soul, a woman not afraid to use violence to achieve her goals. As the story develops, it becomes immediately clear what Epiphany’s background is, but even that doesn’t help to soften the blow of the bombshell that she drops on Jerry, and on us, when she reveals exactly how he can help her.

From its comic beginnings, Epiphany Jones grows steadily darker until it becomes a book that is incredibly difficult to read at times: Grothaus pulls no punches, dropping the reader into the middle of his child trafficking and sex slavery storyline right alongside Jerry. There are no artistic fades or camera-pans here, just a brutal realism – even filtered, as it is, through Jerry’s mind – that leaves the reader with no questions about where their sympathies lie. This marked contrast between the first and second halves of the novel brings with it a surreal sense that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a completely different story. We are, in a way, taken unawares, lulled into a false sense of security before being exposed to the true horror of the dark underbelly of the world.

Despite my qualms with the book’s beginning, Epiphany Jones is one of the strongest and certainly the most original debut I’ve read this year. It’s a beautifully-written piece, and the author knows how to strike the right balance between comedy and real-life horror to ensure that he doesn’t alienate any part of his audience. Underpinned by a strong plot, Epiphany Jones is, nonetheless, driven by its quirky characters and by the relationships between them. Michael Grothaus has produced a mature and engaging debut that is sure to divide readers right down the middle and that, for me, is the ultimate sign of a great storyteller. Not to be missed.

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson

NightBlind-BF-AW-2-275x423 NIGHTBLIND

Ragnar Jónasson (

Translated by Quentin Bates (

Orenda Books (


The violent death of Siglufjördur’s police inspector heralds a new age for the small northern Icelandic town. There are rumours of drug deals gone bad, police corruption and the involvement of the town’s mayor and deputy mayor. Ari Thór Arason, Siglufjördur’s remaining policeman, recovering from illness and dealing with the stresses in his relationship with the mother of his son, requests the help of his old boss, and together they investigate, leaving no stone unturned, no skeletons in any of the town’s closets, unravelling, as they go, a fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the house where the police inspector was murdered.

Nightblind is the second of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels to be published in English, even though it is the last of a five-book series published in the author’s native Iceland. Readers of Snowblind expecting to pick up where the first book left off may be disappointed, but if, like me, you missed that first book, it makes Nightblind a good jumping-on point, safe in the knowledge that it’s a reasonably stand-alone piece of fiction.

The book opens with the death of Herjólfur, the new police inspector of the small town of Siglufjördur, a remote town in the far north of Iceland with few links to the rest of the country due to the mountains and sea that surround and isolate it. Ari Thór Arason, the town’s remaining policeman, is finally starting to feel welcome as a local after five years serving the town and is unsure how best to look at Herjólfur’s tragic demise: as the tragedy it is; as a near miss, since it should have been him on duty when the murder took place; or as the long-awaited opportunity for Ari Thór himself to step up into the role of police inspector. As he and Tómas, Herjólfur’s predecessor who has since moved to Reykjavik, investigate, it becomes clear that Herjólfur may have been involved in shady deals, and all clues seem to point to the man who has recently become the town’s mayor, and the mysterious young woman whom he has chosen as his deputy and who is on the run from her own tortured and dangerous past.

With the exception of Tómas, who we really only see through the eyes of others, Jónasson gives us in-depth access to the minds of the central characters. What becomes immediately obvious is how unlikeable each and every one of them is: from Ari Thór whose self-interest and self-pity quickly wear thin, to Mayor Gunnar Gunnarsson whose private life is in danger of encroaching on his public life, to Siglufjördur’s resident criminal whose seemingly innocent mention of Ari Thór’s family hides a world of dangerous intent. In many ways Tómas is the only character with an ounce of humanity, an illusion perhaps created by the distance Jónasson maintains between him and the reader.

The town of Siglufjördur is an integral part of the story, and becomes a character in its own right. With a similar feel to the eponymous location of British television’s Fortitude, this small town likes to keep itself very much to itself, despite recent developments that allow more traffic to flow through the small town centre. Set at the onset of winter, Jónasson gives us some idea of the harsh conditions that have created this small, tight-knit community who spend three months of every year in almost complete darkness due to the mountains that surround them. There are a number of key themes that run through the book, giving the story an added depth that can sometimes be lacking from straight crime fiction, especially crime fiction of this length (Nightblind comes in at barely 200 pages). The most obvious of these is the sense of belonging or, more correctly, the feeling of not belonging; none of the key characters – Ari Thór, Herjólfur, Gunnar, Elín – are Siglufjördur natives, and it shows, despite their public roles within the community. There is a sense that the town is keeping something to itself, and one wonders what the locals know that we – and the story’s central characters – do not.

Other themes feel very closely linked together: no less than three of the characters are currently, or were at some point in the past, being unfaithful to their wives, husbands or partners. Without introducing spoilers, it’s sufficient to say that these traits don’t help in endearing the characters to the readers. Tied closely with this is the misogyny and violence against women – again, in more than one unrelated instance – that, in some ways, forms the very foundation of the story. Despite the small-town setting and the sometimes-laid-back nature of the people who live there, Nightbllind has a dark heart that turns this slim volume into something special.

Tensely plotted and perfectly paced, Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is something of a revelation. There is no need to understand the backstory of these characters (thankfully, since three of the earlier books aren’t yet available in English!) in order to fully appreciate the events of the story. It’s a clever whodunit with a cast of memorable – though, to varying degrees, unpalatable – characters in whose stories, beyond all reasonable expectations, we find ourselves totally invested and a beautiful desolate setting that is as cold as it is exotic. I, for one, will be adding Snowblind to my reading list, and will be looking forward to the further adventures of the townspeople of Siglufjördur. In the meantime, I can’t help but recommend Nightblind to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction on the darker side.

GUEST POST: Too Dangerous to Make a Movie There by PAUL E. HARDISTY

Paul_Hardisty2 Name: PAUL E. HARDISTY


On the web:

On Twitter: @Hardisty_Paul

My new novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books, is set in Yemen, a country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a thriller based around a set of experiences I had working there over a period of about 15 years. Of course, those events have been fictionalised, and as it says inside the front cover: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Loosely translated: fiction is truer than non-fiction. So true that to protect himself and the reader, the author has to camouflage it, transform it into an entertainment.

Yemen would be a fabulous place to set a movie. It’s the most photogenic place I’ve ever seen. Landscapes as big as the whole sky, faces weathered by sun and labour, not yet homogenised by modern dentistry and skincare, bodies clothed each by hand, mud-brick and alabaster towns and hamlets clinging to the sides of desert wadis and bleak andesite cliffs. Oases strung like gems on a fishing line, heartbeats of life clinging to isolated sockets in the ancient Palaeocene limestone plateaux. But the truth is that it’s too dangerous to make a movie there.

Yemen is not really a country, as we would understand it. Sure it’s got a place on the map. They even, in just the last few years, got around to actually delineating the northern border with Saudi Arabia. Before that, it existed only as an uncertainty, a dotted line running through the Rhub Al’Khali, the Empty Quarter, a hundred thousand square miles of shifting desert sand as inhospitable as any place on the planet. It has a capital city (Sana’a, with its wonderful world heritage old-town), a flag, a national anthem. It even has what is supposed to be a government, and money. Except that the government has no control outside the main cities. What Yemen has, has had for ever, is tribes. They are the real power in this place that passes for a modern state. They are heavily armed, fiercely independent, and mostly they just want to be left alone. If you want to see Arabia as it was two hundred years ago, go. You can still see it, if you can get there.

So, for me, it makes it a perfect setting for a book. I know the place, or rather parts of the place, reasonably well. I’ve met some amazing people there, seen some pretty sad and beautiful and scary things there. I hope, one day, the people of Yemen can enjoy a time when it might be possible for people to travel the country in relative safety, maybe even make a film version of The Abrupt Physics of Dying there. I think it would make a pretty good movie.

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