Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne


Simon Toyne (

HarperCollins (


A small aircraft crashes in the desert outside the small Arizona town of Redemption. One man walks away from the wreckage, though he is unsure of whether he was actually on the plane. He is, in fact, unsure of anything, his mind wiped clean, his knowledge of who he is and where he comes from gone. He soon discovers that his name is Solomon Creed, and that he is in Redemption to save a man named James Coronado, a man who the town is burying at the time Creed arrives. Redemption, like any small town, hides many secrets, and the town elders have good reason to worry, not because Solomon Creed has arrived in their midst, but because there was a precious package on board the crashed plane, a precious package that could spell the end of the town, unless they can use Creed’s sudden appearance to their own advantage.

The eponymous hero of Simon Toyne’s new novel is a complete enigma – to himself, to those he meets, to the reader. Striking – albino-like – in appearance, he stands out, and his odd mannerisms serve only to emphasise this strange man in our minds. His immediate clash with Redemption’s chief of police and the unusual pieces of information that surface in his mind as and when he needs them – pieces of information that have nothing to do with who he is, or why he is in Redemption – give us some ideas of who he might be or, at the very least, what his past may have entailed. Toyne never – at least until the novel’s closing pages – goes farther than suggestion, and so we are left with this enigma and our own guesses as to how he ended up in this small Arizona town, and what he hopes to accomplish here.

The town itself plays an important role in the story, its history and people integral parts of the bigger picture. Like his fictional city of Ruin, this small town is perfectly-formed, and presented to the reader in such a way that we feel we know it, we know the people who inhabit it, and the dirty little secrets that they think they hide from one another. It feels like somewhere we’ve been before, yet another testament to Toyne’s ability to infuse his novels with a definite sense of place, making the location come to life in the same way that his characters do.

Solomon Creed is Simon Toyne’s first post-Sanctus venture, and is a much different beast from that lauded trilogy. Palpably tense from the opening pages, the author has crafted an intelligent, well-paced thriller that brings together the best elements of small-town America, lost treasure and Mexican drug cartels in a single, coherent, gripping whole. Interestingly, the novel does share one of the earlier trilogy’s key features: at the centre of this plot, and of the lives of the people who live in the town of Redemption, is religion (or, perhaps, Religion?), though here it is of a much more mundane variety than the secretive monks of Ruin’s Citadel. Toyne uses the town’s history, and the story of its founder, to examine the question of faith and to consider what it is that forms the foundation of these peoples’ faith.

For the most part, the story is centred around the location of a long-lost treasure hidden by Redemption’s founding father. As Solomon Creed learns more about the town, it becomes apparent that the accident that killed James Coronado may have been something much more sinister. Along with Coronado’s wife, Holly, he tries to discover why anyone would have wanted him dead, and discovers that the town’s elders may be hiding much bigger secrets than is at first apparent.

So, what is it that sets Solomon Creed apart from the multitude of action heroes? It’s the sense of mystery and the author’s wonderful ability to drip-feed the information he wants us to know to keep the story and the character fresh and engaging. It’s the way in which knowledge and useful skills come to Creed out of the blue, as if he’s connected to the Internet, networked in the literal sense; Creed is no Superman, but we get the feeling that he might be able to do anything the Man of Steel could do and more. Think of The Matrix’s Neo learning Kung Fu, and you’re close to understanding the scope of Creed’s untapped mental resources. And therein lies his defining trait: Creed is not an action hero, not in the traditional sense; he is a man with a purpose, a man more likely to think his way out of a sticky situation than shoot his way out, but a dangerous man to be on the wrong side of nonetheless.

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE FIRST STONE by Elliott Hall

the-first-stone-elliott-hall THE FIRST STONE

Elliott Hall (

John Murray (


hrpv2Elliott Hall’s 2009 debut novel, and the first in his Felix Strange trilogy, The First Stone, is the subject of the latest Hodderscape Review Project. Don’t forget to check out the thoughts of my fellow reviewers, to which you’ll find links on the Hodderscape website.

Brother Isaiah is America’s best-loved preacher. When his body is found in his hotel room shortly after he arrives in New York at the head of his Crusade of Love, foul play is the most obvious explanation. Felix Strange, veteran of the holy war in Iran, is now a private investigator who specialises in the seedier jobs for which men in his profession are best known. So when he is hired to look into Brother Isaiah’s death – and keep it quiet while he does so – he finds himself wondering what made him the ideal candidate. Something is rotten at the core of America’s religious government and Brother Isaiah’s death is only the tip of the iceberg. Felix Strange would rather not be involved but, for now at least, he has little choice in the matter.

The First Stone, as well as being Elliott Hall’s debut novel, is also the first in a trilogy featuring private eye Felix Strange. In many ways a Philip Marlowe clone, there is little to set Strange apart from others in the same genre until you take a look at the world in which he operates: Hall has created a frightening – but extremely realistic – vision of an all-too-possible future America that elevates Strange above his fictional contemporaries and uses his story to present a stark warning to the book’s readers.

This is America of a very near future: Houston is gone, the only American casualty in a short-lived nuclear war with Iran (whose capital city Tehran was the only other casualty). In the wake of these atrocities, America has turned to God for help, electing a president on a deeply religious mandate. Now run by a group of twelve Elders, the country is slowly slipping back into the dark ages, the gender divide widening instead of shrinking, and even punishment for most venial sins backed up by the force of law. Around this background, Hall has constructed a number of groups which all, on the surface, are working towards the same aim but which each has its own hidden agenda. Groups such as the Crusade of Love, and Ezekiel White’s Committee for Child Protection, a sort of police force tasked with the safety of the nation’s souls.

Throw into this mix Felix Strange, atheist private eye who is considered Jewish by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Jew, and the scene is set for fireworks from the outset. Strange is a veteran of the holy war waged by America on Iran, and was in-country when Tehran turned into "Ghost Town". Like many of his fellow soldiers, he has returned to the United States with an unwanted souvenir, an inexplicable and incurable unnamed disease that leaves him crippled with pain and prone to fits if he doesn’t take his regular medications. And in a right-wing, God-fearing America where socialised healthcare has never existed, affording these medications is often nigh on impossible, which is why he is happy to accept this commission without asking too many questions.

Strange is, as I’ve mentioned, a clone of Chandler’s Marlowe, as many great private detectives created since the 1950s have been before him, down to the very clothes he wears, and the wise-cracking attitude that tends to get him into trouble. Like Chandler, Hall isn’t afraid to put his creation through the mill, and the reader can expect Strange to spend large portions of the novel in severe pain and/or serious trouble. Throw in a beautiful woman, a member of the Crusade of Love whose job is to entrap sinners – adulterers, usurers – and The First Stone is the perfect recipe for a top-rate PI mystery, which will see Felix Strange mixing with government, police, gangsters and even the FBI in the quest not only to find the answers he’s been paid to find, but also to keep his own head on his shoulders and remain one step ahead of the myriad groups out for his blood.

In part driven by the characters – Strange himself has a certain charm that makes him the ideal voice for the story, but the other characters such as the enigmatic Iris, the rich Thorpe, the power-hungry White, are equally as engaging – and in part by the strange new world that Hall has created out of the ashes of this world that we know so well, The First Stone is part classic private eye novel, part dystopian noir. Regardless of which part appeals to the individual, it’s a well-rounded novel that not only comes to a satisfying conclusion, but also gets a hook into the reader guaranteeing that we’ll be back for the rest of the trilogy (fortunately for us, since The First Stone was first published in 2009, the complete trilogy is already available and has just recently been released in a lovely omnibus edition by Hodder).

As well as the rollicking mystery tale, The First Stone contains much food for thought. This warped vision of the future is all the more frightening because of how realistic it seems, how close to our own reality this alternate world is. Part parody, part warning, it is a novel that could only have been written from the outsider’s perspective (Hall is a Canadian who lives in England) without devolving into pure satire or political rhetoric.

A darkly comic creation built around a tightly-plotted mystery and set in a New York that is but a single election away from the one we know, Elliott Hall’s The First Stone is the perfect introduction to an excellent reimagining of a comfortable old character trope. Felix Strange is exactly what we want in a fictional private eye and Hall’s debut novel is the perfect introduction to the man’s weird and wonderful world. I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the trilogy, and will be waiting with bated breath for Hall’s next outing.

LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor

LAGOON - Nnedi Okorafor LAGOON

Nnedi Okorafor (

Hodder & Stoughton (


Lagos, Nigeria. Three strangers meet three yards from the sea on the city’s Bar Beach late on a January evening: Adaora, a marine biologist who lives in the affluent part of town; Agu, a soldier whose moral compass has earned him a beating from his colleagues and set him on this path tonight; and Anthony, a famous Ghanian rapper, who has just finished performing. The three are here to bear witness to arrival of extraterrestrials, and to become the first people to make contact with the strange woman – Ayodele – who walks from the sea shortly after they meet on the beach. As word of the invasion leaks, various factions attempt to gain control of Ayodele for their own means and civil unrest erupts. The aliens claim to come in peace, but the only man who can broker a deal that will save the country from falling into brutal civil war is Nigeria’s president, a sick old man who isn’t even in the country.

Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, Lagoon, takes a fresh look at the alien invasion story, ignoring the most frequently-visited locations for this kind of novel (New York, Los Angeles, London), opting instead for Nigeria’s largest city, something of an unknown quantity for many British and American readers (myself included). We learn in the opening chapter what sort of impact this invasion – as peaceful as it claims to be – is likely to have on the city, country and wider planet. The aliens take the form of the indigenous species, and have the ability to enhance those species physically and mentally. As they land in the Lagos Lagoon itself, their first encounter is with the sea life, and it takes no time before these enhanced creatures are fighting back against the human invasion of their territory – puncturing oil lines, attacking boats. It should come as no surprise, then, that the three human characters at the centre of the story should be enhanced beyond normal humans either. Each has a gift, something that sets them apart, and something that caused them to be drawn to the shore at Bar Beach at exactly the right moment. Whether these enhancements are due to the influence of the visitors or not is a question left open for the reader to decide: we are given no clear indication of when these aliens arrived, or how long they may have lain dormant off the shore of Nigeria before they made their presence known.

The heart of the story, though, despite the colourful characters that Okorafor presents to us, is the city of Lagos itself. It is painted as something of a melting pot, a mix of cultures and languages (there are at least three different ones referenced throughout the book), a city like no other on the face of the planet. Such is Okorafor’s descriptive power that we find ourselves in the middle of this unique city, smelling the food, hearing the sounds, sucked into the thick of the story. It’s a city that cries out to be visited, despite its darker side.

Like any city, Lagos does have a dark side. Okorafor introduces us to a number of groups whose aim is to get hold of the alien ambassador for their own purposes, whether it’s financial gain (in the case of Moziz and his friends), or a perceived path to spiritual salvation (as Father Oke would have his congregation believe) or for more sinister reasons (like those that drive the army). For the most part, these are groups that could only exist in this strange city: 419ers and missionaries, people whose sense of entitlement overrides all consideration of consequences for their fellow men. As such, Lagoon and the city of Lagos are tightly intertwined and, unlike the more generic "Western" tales of this ilk, the story is not transferrable outside the city limits.

It’s a beautifully-told story that does, however, have a tendency to slow down quite a bit, especially earlier in the narrative. On reflection, it’s easy to pinpoint what causes these lulls, and it’s a fault that lies entirely with this reader (and will, I suspect, affect others in a similar way). Several sections of the book – specifically, but not limited to, the sections that feature Moziz – make heavy use of Pidgin English in the dialogue. When we first encounter this language, it’s difficult to understand, and requires some extra work to try and decipher what’s being said, and whether it’s important enough to the overall plot that the gist will be enough. As we get more exposure, though, and find the rhythm of these peoples’ voices, it becomes easier to parse and affects the reading experience much less. It’s worth noting that there is a glossary at the back of the book and, if you’re having difficulty with the language early on, it’s a helpful guide to what is being said.

That aside, Lagoon is a wonderful, exotic take on a familiar science fiction trope. I’m ashamed to admit that, not only is it my first exposure to 2011 World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor, but it’s also the first time I’ve encountered her work at all. The combination of setting and vivid characterisations serve to set this apart from anything else you’re likely to have read in a long time. Okorafor introduces some interesting tricks to give us some outside perspective, a quick look at the situation through the eyes of characters who otherwise have nothing to do with the progression of the plot. There is a section in the middle of the book where a number of people take turns declaring "I was there" and telling their story, a riff on the theory that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, or when John F. Kennedy took his final, fatal drive through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.

Nnedi Okorafor brings a unique voice and fresh and interesting perspective to science fiction. Lagoon is a novel in which it is almost impossible not to completely immerse yourself for the duration. Using the exotic location to its fullest extent (Okorafor evokes Lagos in her writing in much the same way that James Lee Burke evokes that other unique melting pot, New Orleans), the author spins a tale that captures the reader on the first page and keeps them interested until the last page. You won’t have read anything quite like this, and I can say with some confidence that you won’t be disappointed.

SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet


Kelly Braffet (

Corvus (


When Patrick Cusimano’s father kills a child while driving drunk, Patrick calls the police. The "right thing", morally, isn’t necessarily the right thing for the Cusimano family, and Patrick’s older brother Mike resents him for it. Layla and Verna Elshere are the daughters of a preacher; Layla is the face of her father’s campaigns and she rebels as soon as she’s old enough to feel that she knows her own mind. Joining a gang of outsiders, Layla finds herself fascinated by Patrick Cusimano and his family, and feels the need to save her younger sister from the same fate that she, herself, has only recently escaped. As the different parts of Layla’s life intersect, guided by the charismatic Justinian, it becomes clear that the choices these people have made in the past, the choices that define the life they currently live, have massive – and potentially fatal – implications for their immediate futures.

Save Yourself is the third novel from rising US star Kelly Braffet. Small-town America has long provided rich pickings for storytellers of all types, and Braffet starts out on familiar ground: on the one hand we have the Cusimanos, a pair of brothers from the wrong side of the track, stuck in dead-end graveyard-shift jobs, heading for the same fate as their father: a life ruined by alcohol and inertia. On the other side of the tracks, the Elsheres, a man who runs his own church and uses his young daughters as the faces of his various campaigns. Until, of course, the inevitable rebellion, and acceptance of a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to the one they have been forced to live during their formative years, facilitated by Justinian and the small group of outsiders that he keeps close.

Dark and slow-moving, this is very much a character-driven piece, and Braffet shows a deft turn of hand in presenting these people to the reader, making them leap from the page, and building a complex set of relationships between them that lead, ultimately, to the gloriously noirish finale. Patrick, who turns his father in to the police and sleeps with his brother’s girlfriend, is the ultimate black sheep. He is well-matched, then, with Layla who is an outsider in her own family, and finds more comfort with the small group of likeminded people she calls friends. Fascinated by Patrick because of the family history, the relationship turns darkly sexual, adding to the burden that already weighs Patrick down. Verna, bullied at school by the same crowd that gave her older sister such a hard time, welcomes the relief that comes with abandoning the life she knows and following in her sister’s footsteps. And Justinian, hardly more than a teenager, but with a strange "pull" that gives him power over the small band of misfits that he believes are his own, the dark, demented puppet-master that seems to be pulling all the strings.

As the story progresses, and we see how these relationships play out, it becomes clear that Layla and Verna have gotten themselves mixed up in a cult of sorts; the sort of cult that nurtures school bombers and shooters. Once this becomes clear, things spiral quickly out of control, and the pace picks up into a headlong rush towards some inevitable final showdown. There are no heroes here, and while it’s difficult to like any of the characters, Braffet makes sure we know where our sympathies lie, so that we become completely engrossed in the story, and completely invested in following these people to whatever bitter end is in store for them.

Save Yourself is dark, but not heavy-going, despite the heavy themes it examines: alcoholism, depression, outsiders and cults. There are some startling parallels with father-in-law Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (minus the supernatural elements), in the themes Braffet examines. And anyone who has found themselves engrossed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Gus van Sant’s beautiful 2003 film Elephant will revel in the deconstruction of the psychology of young people, and the examination of what causes them to snap and head off to school, or the mall, or the cinema with an automatic weapon in their backpack.

Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe


James Smythe (

Blue Door Books (…/blue-door)


At first, we thought the noise was just a radio.

Suddenly, the whole world is filled with static and, as it dies away, the words My Children. No-one has any idea where the noise has come from, or to whom the voice belongs. Hours later, the static returns, and the message continues: Do not be afraid. The world is immediately split into four camps: those who believe it was the voice of one or other god or God; those who believe it is a message from aliens; those who believe it is a top-secret experiment gone wrong; and those who heard nothing at all. As religious mania sweeps the globe and order begins to slip, fingers are pointed and pre-emptive strikes launched. But the voice has more to say, and the human race has even more difficult challenges to face.

The Testimony is, as the title suggests, a collection of first-person accounts detailing the events as they unfold, the gradual decline of order and sanity, and the descent into chaos. There are twenty-six such accounts (according to the book’s blurb – I haven’t counted), interspersed to form a loose timeline from the first occurrence of the static through to the book’s conclusion. Only a handful of these characters form what could be considered the core group, the characters essential to the central plot of the novel, and therein lies part of the book’s downfall.

As a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Testimony, James Smythe’s first novel, should have ticked all the boxes for me. The idea is startlingly original and it details an all-too-plausible spiral of horror and madness as things fall apart. In some ways it is reminiscent of King’s The Stand, or Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, documenting the transition from the world we know to the one that remains when things go horribly wrong. In places it is gripping and horrific, showing glimpses of this brilliant young writer at his best, but there are too many problems and, ultimately, the book fails on a number of levels.

Some of the problems are fairly minor – nothing to ruin to story, but enough to jar the reader out of the moment. These are mainly continuity errors, problems that should have been caught before publication – names that change from one chapter to the next or problems with some of the timings: for example, everyone who heard the static heard it at exactly the same time, yet people in London heard it while eating their lunch and people in Leeds heard it at four-thirty in the morning. It sounds like nit-picky stuff, but when it’s noticeable enough to mar the reading experience, that’s a problem.

A more serious problem for me was the massive overpopulation. There are a handful of key players, and it quickly becomes obvious who they are. There are other, less-important, players who nonetheless play pivotal roles in key subplots, giving a different perspective to the events as they unfold. Beyond that there are far too many characters who seem to go nowhere: we see them once or twice for the duration of the novel, or they are frequent contributors who don’t actually add anything to the story. There is a sense, as we approach the end of the novel, that they are nothing more than padding, and it’s a frustrating realisation.

My biggest problem with The Testimony, however, is the fact that it fizzles to nothing at the end. It’s as if Smythe pulls away from the worst-case scenario at the last minute; instead of the brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of which we get glimpses in the middle section of the novel, we find a disappointing conclusion with a tacked-on feel.

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

SANCTUS by Simon Toyne


Simon Toyne (

HarperCollins (


Released: 14 April 2011

Welcome to Ruin in Southern Turkey. Home of the Citadel, a thousand-foot-high black mountain that houses a secretive holy order, around which the city has grown, and which is the most-visited historical site on the planet. The monks within the mountain serve a single purpose: to protect the Sacrament, the mysterious object that is the focus of faith and the foundation of the Church.

When a man dressed in the green robes of the Sancti – the highest novitiate within the order – climbs to the top of the mountain and strikes a pose mirroring Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, before throwing himself to a messy death on the cobbled streets below, he sets in motion a chain of events that could change the face of the world. Liv Adamsen a crime journalist based in New Jersey, with the help of a local policeman, and the brains behind a worldwide charity, begins to investigate, digging into a millennia-old secret that the Citadel-dwellers would do anything to protect.

To explain the plot of this extraordinary novel in any more detail than that could well constitute spoilers. What we have here is a very original action thriller-cum-whodunnit-cum-puzzle. Toyne has put a lot of effort into the mythology that supports this story, creating a well-rounded and believable world and fully-formed interesting characters. Yes, this is a gripping, fast-paced (for the most part) page-turner in the best sense, but keeps the little grey cells engaged throughout, providing a clever mystery that will keep you wondering until the final, startling, reveal.

And what a reveal. Sanctus is one of those books that keeps the reader thinking “I hope this is all worth it. If I get to the end and the butler did it, I won’t be happy.” You can rest assured, then, that there is no butler in evidence; the last time I came across a payoff this worthwhile, an ending this original and startling, was when I finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

One of the book’s most distinctive characters is the city of Ruin itself. Toyne has put a lot of thought into the structure of the city, the various “quarters” that make up this sprawling tourist trap with the most distinctive centrepiece. Like Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon (both of which sprang immediately to mind when I started reading the book), there’s something slightly off about the city, something dangerous and intriguing. I, for one, hope that Toyne returns here with future novels, to show us some of the other attractions the place has to offer.

It’s still too early in the year to call this one of the books of the year and have it actually mean something, but expect this one to be huge. Toyne has an obvious love for what he’s doing, and it shows through in the work, in the lovingly-detailed city and Citadel, the huge cast of characters ranging from the whitest of white-hats to the blackest of black-hats and every shade of grey in between, and the sheer energy that propels the reader through the story. Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.

A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.

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