Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Blog Tour! - To Die In Vienna by Kevin Wignall - Blog Tour!

One of my great loves are 1970’s conspiracy thrillers, The Parralax View being perhaps my favourite movie of all time.  Alan J Pakula, the director, also directed Klute, and of course All The Presidents Men, the three movies forming a loose trilogy that summed up the disillusion, distrust and paranoia many American were beginning to view their government through. One can add to this mix The Conversation, where Gene Hackman played a freelance surveillance expert who stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy.

To Die In Vienna, while set in contemporary Europe, has a very similar vibe to those 1970’s movies, an in particular to The Conversation. Like Gene Hackman’s character in the movie, Freddie Mackin, the protagonist of the novel, is a freelance surveillance expert. He’s on a job in Vienna, surveilling Jiang Cheng, a Chinese academic and programming specialist. Cheng leads a highly structured and mundane life; Freddie has no idea why he’s been contracted to spy on the man.

Freddie is a man with a tragic past; prior to working freelance he was an operative for S8, a shadowy outfit on the frontlines of the War on Terror. An ambush occurred in Yemen and Freddie’s has been haunted by it ever since. He turned his back on that kind of work and became a recluse, putting his skills to use for the corporate world. Freddie’s struggle to come to terms with his trauma has him draw solace from watching the simplicity and peacefulness of Cheng’s life and he has developed a fondness for his target.

One day, out of the blue, everything changes. Agents of some kind take Chen, seize Freddie’s surveillance equipment and come after Freddie. What has Chen done to cause this? What has Freddie seen, through the surveillance, to put his life in danger? So begins a cat and mouse game, Freddie doing his pursuers, all the while trying to learn what it is he has seen so that he might ensure his own survival, and yes, perhaps get justice for Chen.

This is a brilliant book, If you like intelligent thrillers with well-rounded characters you’ll like this; if, like me, you loved the paranoid 70’s movies, you’ll love it. This is a thinking person’s thriller - there’s little action, though when it comes, it’s handled well - it’s a slow burner, but gripping nonetheless. 

It was no surprise to learn that To Die In Vienna has been snapped up by Hollywood. Apparently, Focus Features (part of Universal) have purchased the rights and Jake Gyllenhaal is slated to play Freddie.  Having read the book, I for one will be buying tickets for the cinema once the movie adaptation comes out.

5 out of 5 stars

The Moor by Sam Haysom

Like many areas of life in the past few decades - ever since the birth of the internet and then, later, social media - publishing has been going through a tumultuous period. Long established business models have been thrown into flux. Are traditional publishers fit for purpose? What about literary agents? Certainly some, like the ever impressive author Mark Dawson, have turned their backs on the lot and carved out lucrative careers in self-publishing.

A problem with self-publishing however is how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? When anyone can publish a novel, how does one know whether it’s any good and professionally edited, or just thrown out there? How can one separate the budding Mark Dawsons from those who just aren’t any good?

An alternative model to both traditional publishing and the pitfalls of self-publishing might be crowdfunding and that’s where an intriguing new service called Unbound comes into play. Basically, authors pitch their novel to Unbound. If Unbound think they have merit, they then put them up on their site for readers to crowdfund. The money raised goes to the cost of professionally producing the books - editing, proofreading, cover design, etc - and as with any crowdfunding campaign, those funding the novel get various rewards, such as a special first edition.

Intrigued by this idea, I found one of their titles - The Moor by Sam Haysom - on Netgalley, the review service I use and decided to give it a read. Was it any good?Had Unbound done its job and found a gem?

Well yes, they have.

The Moor follows a group of boys - Gary, James, Tom, Matt, and newcomer to their school Tim - on a camping trip in Rutmoor National Park with Tim’s dad, Mr Stevens. Rutmoor has a bit of a reputation, people having gone missing and died in mysterious circumstances. Mr Stevens is a charming man and the other parents love him, he’s also a skilled hill walker, hence them readily agreeing to entrust their children in his care. Sat around the campfire one night, the conversation of the Moor’s reputation comes up and Mr Stevens tells them all a gruesome ghost story which sets them all on edge. As the trip continues unpleasant things being to occur.

The novel is told from various characters point of view, it also switches between the time of the trip, when the boys were aged 13, and the present, where the surviving boys are adults. As the novel progresses, we gradually learn which of the characters survived their outing to the more, what happened and why.

Sam Haysom tells his story with aplomb. The characters are well rounded and this is a spooky and creep tale which will have readers turning the pages quickly, wanting to know what happens. This is a really good debut horror and it’s no surprise to me that none other than Owen King, Stephen King’s son and a horror writer in his own rite, has recommended The Moor.

In fact, so impressed was I by The Moor, that on the strength of this novel I’ve got involved with Unbound and pledged money to one of their titles in development. If they can find author’s like Sam then they might well be a worthy addition to the publishing landscape.

5 out of 5 stars

Clockwork City by Paul Crilley

This is the second instalment in the author’s Delphic Division series, an urban fantasy, crime, horror fiction mash-up that is thrilling in it’s scope. The series features Gideon Tau, who everyone calls London, who works for the Delphic Division, the occult investigative unit for the South African Police. With London is his spirit guide, an alcoholic, speaking dog. While his boss, Armitage, originally from Yorkshire, is some kind of undead being. 

I first encountered this series when I read, and reviewed, Crilley’s first novel, Poison City. Set in South Africa it was a wild, fun, horrific ride through demons and folklore. The first novel had a lot of theology too, something some reviewers felt uneasy about. Personally I didn’t mind that at all, in fact I lauded it for being thought provoking. I gave Poison City four stars, with one caveat and reason for losing a star - that in my opinion the author tried to cram too much into one novel.

So what of its hotly anticipated sequel, Clockwork City? Well, we have the same mix that went into the first novel. London, Armitage and the Dog head of to London, UK, on a case which involves a lot more demons, deities, and this time, faerie gangs who control the city’s underworld.

Once again this is a madcap tale, but I found it lost something in it’s transition to the UK. Personally, perhaps because at one point the South African police really did have an Occult Crimes division (albeit normal police officers investigating humans involved in various unsavoury activities), I felt the novel lost a bit of it’s unique sparkle.

More critically, however, was a repeat of my criticism of the first book. I just feel the author squeezed too much into this novel. At no point was the story given time to breath, there’s just too much going on; if I’m honest, reading this book, I kinda came away feeling exhausted.

This is still a good book and the series is certainly original. No doubt there will be a third in the series and I will definitely give it a read. But I would advise the author to slow it all down a touch, focus the story more and not feel the need to cram so many supernatural beings and events into one tale.

3 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Rogue by J. B. Turner

Rogue is a high-octane thriller in the style of the Bourne films. If you like that kind of book or film, then you’re sure to like this. Nathan Stone was killed in action while serving with the CIA. At least that’s what everyone thought. In reality, he was whisked away by a semi-private concern, The Commission, an organisation sponsored by shady billionaires and run by former black ops military officers. He’s now an assassin tasked with eliminating people deemed to be a threat to vital American interests. There’s a kill list of Commission targets and an up and coming US Senator, Brad Crichton, is on it. Stone is tasked with doing the deed, but things get complicated.

The premise of this book in many ways is of its time. The Commission is not a government agency, though it receives tacit support from The Pentagon. As such, it’s a product of “The Deep State”. The term “Deep State” originated in Turkey (and to a lesser extent, the former Soviet Union) and refers to the idea that powerful interests in the military, security services, civil service and/or establishments exert undemocratic control and undermine the elected civilian leadership. The term was never used in a western context until recently, but post-election of Donald Trump, it’s gained currency. Supporters of Trump argue that his Presidency has been undermined from the beginning and point to a deep state conspiracy behind the allegations his election campaign conspired with Russia to discredit Hillary Clinton. 

In Rogue, Brad Crichton is a charismatic senator tipped as Presidential material. He’s a committed isolationist, a man sceptical of US involvement in foreign interventions. He’s also a believer in fiscal responsibility, a man likely to want to look again at those bloated defence budgets. Seeing his potential to win his party’s nomination and then the White House, the commission deem him a national security risk. Crichton comes across here as a combination of JFK and Trump - young, charismatic, good looking and a senator, reflecting Kennedy; an isolationist sceptical of US involvement abroad, reflecting Trump (at least his positions on the campaign trail). Indeed, Trump supporters argue this is one of the reasons the alleged deep state are attempting to undermine his presidency. Of course, it’s worth noting that some of those who believe the Kennedy conspiracy theories argue he was an isolationist too, that he was on the verge of ending the Vietnam war, a move which supposedly triggered his assassination. So maybe the author’s inspiration for Crichton was wholly Kennedy.

This book then is an action-packed conspiracy thriller. As one would expect of such a tale, the narrative is fast moving, the chapters are short and concise, there’s lots of action and a good number of twists. It’s certainly and enjoyable read and in the present climate, pertinent and relevant too.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 25 May 2018

The Cyclist by Anthony Neil Smith

Judd is a failed Navy SEAL now working in a dead-end job in banking. He was busted out of the SEALs after a training accident where he gunned down his training sergeant, a legendary SEAL who somehow survived the shooting only to now be pensioned off due to his injuries. Needless to say, Cleaver, the former training sergeant, holds Judd responsible for the premature end to his stellar career. Cleaver has moved to be near Judd and torments him, despite this, the two are kind of friends having weird and dysfunctional relationship. Judd has met Catriona, a Scottish girl, online. They speak everyday by video link, though they’ve yet to meet in the flesh. They share a love of cycling, something Judd has taken to fanatically to work through his guilt. When Catriona invites him to Scotland, he has little hesitation in abandoning his job and flying half-way around the world. But is everything all that it seems? Certainly, when Cleaver finds out he doesn’t think so and thus decides to follow Judd on his journey.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but this a chilling read. I’m not a fan generally of serial killer fiction, but if you know anything of the famous British case of the Moors Murders then this will bring you out in chills. The author is American and so I don’t know if he’s done much research into Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, but from what I’ve read, the psychology he describes in The Cyclist matches those two exactly. Judd on the other hand is an appealing protagonist and one who suits the story perfectly. He’s not some super hero commando, the likes of which populate many a thriller, rather despite his military background, he’s vulnerable and not a little naiive. That said, when the chips are down, his military training holds him in good stead and he has just enough of the right stuff to see him through. It’s a balancing act that the author performs with some panache and the result is a believable protagonist. 

Anthony Neil Smith is to my mind an underrated writer. I’ve read some of his stuff before and it’s always been very good. Yet for some reason not many people I know are aware of him. I hope the cyclist helps him gain the success he well and truly deserves, for like previous books of his I’ve read, The Cyclist is a riveting read.

5 out of 5 stars 


Blog Tour! - Judge Walden Back In Session by Peter Murphy - Blog Tour!

This is the second in the series of Judge Walden books to be penned by Peter Murphy, himself a retired judge. Prior to that, he wrote another series featuring Ben Schroeder, a barrister (I think that’s right, I haven’t read any of those novels). If I’m not mistaken, the Ben Schroeder novels are a bit harder hitting and serious. Judge Walden on the other hand is very much in the vein of Rumpole of the Bailey, and if you like that kind of thing, you’ll certainly like this. Don’t worry either if you haven’t read the first of the Judge Walden books, these are very much self-contained tales, indeed, the book is split into four sections, each dealing with a separate case, and constitute in effect four short stories with very little crossover between them.

The Judge Walden stories are nice little vignettes, these are light tales of the denizens that populate the Bermondsey crown court. The author pokes fun at Walden’s fellow judges, the barristers and solicitors who make representations before him, their clients. Not forgetting the Grey Smoothies – the civil servants who pop by to enforce cost savings. Another reviewer has commented that when turning his attention to the clients (defendants) – invariably drawn from the more deprived sections of the populace - this can all be a little condescending. It’s a fair comment but only to a point, certainly I’ve read worse. Rather, I feel Judge Walden means well, is paternalistic, caring for all those who appear before him. Is that patronising? Perhaps, but he gives them a fair crack at the whip which is more than can be said for some, I’m sure.

More troubling for me was that I came to this book shortly after reading a non-fiction title: Stories of the Law and How it is Broken, by the Secret Barrister. In those pages, the eponymous Secret Barrister, outlines in forensic detail how decades of cuts and ill-thought out reform have reduced the British Criminal Legal System to a shadow of its former self. According to that title and other testimony, the system is on its knees, guilty people walking free and innocents almost certainly being convicted. 

In light of that title, Judge Walden felt quaint and self-congratulatory. Yes, the author does deal with the cost cutting and the civil service’s illogical diktats, yes, he does address people having to represent themselves, unable to secure legal aid and yet unable to afford to pay for representation for themselves. But it’s all done in that light, amusing and self-satisfied tone that permeates the rest of the novel and thus doesn’t do the subject justice. Of course, the author might well have retired prior to things getting truly bad, and Judge Walden is fiction; the author has set out to write a light-hearted comedic slice of judicial life, and as they say: the title does what it says on the tin.

Overall, this is a good book. While not my usual read - I tend to go for the grittier, noir side of crime fiction myself – this is a relaxing, pleasant book that’s perfect for reading on a summer’s day. In fact, the weather was nice when I read it, out in the garden in the sun, and it complemented the ambience perfectly. Not too taxing and certainly entertaining, this would be a perfect book to read on the beach   

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, 14 May 2018

Blog Tour! - Kid To Killer - Blog Tour!

I have to admit to being a sucker for vigilante fiction. I grew up watching The Equaliser - the original Edward Woodward series, obviously, not the films with Denzel Washington - my dad letting me stay up as long as I had finished my homework. Similarly, what is the appeal of the Marvel Universe and superhero’s more broadly, if it isn’t to see the champion of the little guy, righting the wrongs that the bureaucratic and disinterested state has little interest in doing.

That said, I’m also aware of how troubling such fiction can be. Recently I reviewed Death Wish, the original novel by Brian Garfield and inspiration for the film franchise.  I was unimpressed by Garfield’s novel which in my mind, like the films they spawned, sum up all that’s problematic in this genre: simplistic answers to complex problems, a tendency to dehumanise - the villains tend to the one-dimensional, “scum” that “deserve” to be executed - disdain for the rule of law; quite frankly, vigilante fiction can tend towards photo-fascism.

So where does Kid To Killer fit into this broad milieu? Has it the subtlety of The Equaliser, which while on occasion drifting to simplistic violence, tended to steer clear of the baser elements of the genre, or is it closer to the Charles Bronson film franchise? Happily it’s the former, the author producing here a more complex tale. Kid To Killer tells the story of Paul McGraw a fifteen year old boy who takes it upon himself to clean Edinburgh of those who prey on the innocent. 

Kid To Killer is written in first person. Like the protagonist, the author was born in Edinburgh and is also called Paul, so I found this a little problematic. It was like reading a biography rather than a work of fiction. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the author is a vigilante killer, but I was left wondering what supporting elements of the story were taken from his own life. Of course, all authors incorporate their own experiences into their novels to some extent, how could they possibly not, but the way this novel was written made it noticeable and a little distracting.

A problem vigilante fiction has more broadly is explaining how the character comes to do the things he or she does (historically it’s been a he, though interestingly this is starting to change). With some like The Equaliser, some of the superhero franchises, the protagonist already has a past that explains this, but in many, such as Death Wish and Kid To Killer, they don’t. Even where the character does have a past, there transition still needs adequate explaining. A number of academic studies down the years have shown that even most soldiers hesitate to fire their weapon in combat; most famously Lt Col David Grossman (US Army, Ret) wrote in his seminal title, On Killing, that the majority of servicemen in World War 2 either did not fire, or fired to miss (based on his research, training was changed so that by the Vietnam War, 90% fired). The point of this is that a vigilante thriller, unless the hero has had such training or is a psychopath, has to adequately explain how and why they have overcome the natural resistance to killing. I have to say that I didn’t feel the author adequately got this across. I just wasn’t convinced the character had sufficient motivation and his background didn’t make him “hard” enough to carry it off.

To be clear, there’s much to like about this novel. It’s been edited nicely, containing none of the obvious grammatical errors that blight so many self-published titles (by all means not all, many self-published authors invest in an editor). All in all this was an enjoyable enough read and an interesting addition to the vigilante thriller canon.

3 out of 5 stars