Saturday, 23 April 2016

Maestro by L.S. Hilton

L.S. Hilton is apparently an established writer of historical fiction and Meastra is something of a novel foray for her. I must confess to never having read any of her other works so I can't judge how well Maestra stands up in comparison, but as a thriller - it's billed as something of a hybrid Fatal Attraction/The Talented Mr Ripley/American Psycho/Fifty Shades of Gray - it left me a little cold.

Judith Rashleigh is a lowly assistant at a prestigious auction house. She loves art and dreams of being something big in the art world. Unfortunately, she's bumping up against a glass ceiling of social snobbery and sexism. One day she spots a fake painting being passed off as the real thing but when she reports her suspicions to her unctuous boss, she's sacked for her troubles. So what's a girl to do?

Well, first she takes on a night job in a dodgy hostess bar where she attracts the attention of an obese, sugar daddy. With him she flies to the south of France on an all expenses holiday, having persuaded him to also bring her friend. Here we have our first Fifty Shades moment where she has to do the inevitable and perform oral sex on her benefactor, but thankfully she has a plan to avoid such inconveniences too often. Her friend has brought tranquillizers and their plan is to knock him out while they hit the town.

Of course things go wrong and Mr Sugar Daddy dies. Cue quick thinking by our heroine who manages to get herself and her friend out of trouble in the nick of time. Judith carts her friend off back to Blighty and goes on a tour of Italy, quickly falling in with a world of super rich oligarchs, their yachts, and the beautiful rich playthings who hang from their arms.

One of the problems with Maestra is that wears its influences so obviously on its arm. We have The Talented Mr Ripley with Judith flitting between worlds, chameleon like. We have American Psycho with her wry observations of the innermost thoughts and fears of those around her. We have Fifty Shades of Gray with graphic sex and erotica. But whereas these all did their tasks admirably - yes, even Fifty Shades of Gray, which while I haven't read it myself, seems to have hit the mark with those seeking soft porn - Maestra just stretches itself thin.

But putting aside some of the lurid press which has portrayed Maestra as erotica, I would say biggest influences on this novel are The Talented Mr Ripley and American Psycho. The author does a pretty good attempt at emulating the adventures of Ripley, with Judith successfully wriggling her way into the lives of all those she meets, though Ripley with his narcissism is far the more compelling character. The author's attempt at American Psycho however is far less convincing. Judith is not the out and out psychopath of Jason Bateman but Maestra attempts a similar trick to Brett Easton Ellis's classic in that it attempts to say something profound about all that is wrong in the world. But whereas Bateman vividly reflected the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street, Maestra's portrayal of the world of the Uber rich is far from convincing. I can't say whether the world she paints really exists, it might, but I was left with the impression that it was more a product of her mind. While I'm sure there are billionaires behaving badly, I'm equally convinced that many are as boring as anyone.

Lurid, sensational and salacious, Maestra is certainly lots of fun. But it quickly proves shallow and unsatisfactory, and despite all the sex, just a little tiresome.

3 out of 5 stars.            

Fellside by M.R. Carey

I first came across M.R. Carey through my brother, who leant me a copy of his most excellent The Girl With All The Gifts. A zombie apocalypse novel which broke the mold, I was immensely impressed by M.R. Carey's debut novel and so couldn't wait to read his second book. He didn't disappoint,

Fellside is a departure from the zombie apocalypse genre he so successfully populated with his first novel, striking out this time into the territory of ghosts, hauntings and the afterlife. Our protagonist is Jess Moulson, a heroin addict sentenced to a term in prison for the death of a young boy. High on drugs, she apparently burnt down the apartment building she lived in after an argument with her boyfriend, killing the child in the flat above.

Moulson is sent to HMP Fellside, a fictional prison M.R.Carey has sited in the North York Moors. Fellside is a foreboding stone edifice built on Sharne Fell, which the author memorably describes as having "rock escarpments falling away from the base of its wall like the folds of a dress." It's an arresting image clearly inspired by the portentous imagery of the real-life Dartmoor, perhaps even the state penitentiary in The Shawshank Redemption. And like both those places, Fellside is not a happy place.

Moulson is soon visited by the ghost of Alex Beech, the boy who died in the flat above hers, and discovers a world she recalls from her childhood, a spirit world which she used to pop in and out of and which now Alex guides her through. Alex is not doing this out of the goodness of his heart however, he wants something from Jess, namely her help in discovering the exact circumstances. Grudgingly she agrees to help, turns back from her guilt and self-immolation, and sets out to help Alex solve the mystery of his life and death.

Fellside is an accomplished tale, every bit as good as The Girl With All The Gifts, and M.R. Carey carries it off with aplomb. He really is turning into a writer to watch and I can't wait to read what he has to offer up next.

5 out of 5 stars

Gray Salvation by Alan McDermott

Gray Salvation is the sixth book in Alan McDermott's Tom Gray series. I discovered Alan through Netgalley from whom I borrowed the fifth in the series, Gray Vengeance. Book number five blew me away and I immediately bought all four previous tomes from Amazon, vowing to read the serious from the beginning. I'm still to make time to read the first four novels, due to my prolific reviewing of new titles, but I jumped at the chance to review the next instalment when offered the chance. 

This book is a step down in stakes from the previous, which is hardly a surprise. Gray Vengeance had as it's centre a plot of near apocalyptic proportions and if our protagonist, Tom Gray, were to face such peril in every outing the author might well exhaust himself. This is not to say that Gray Salvation is without thrills, a brutal Russian Mafia don, a Russian invasion of a Caucasus nation clearly inspired by Putin's adventurism in the Ukraine, would all add up to a very bad day for most people, but for Tom Gray it's all in a day's work.

Like Gray Vengeance this is a well-plotted and well-paced thriller set in a contemporary setting. It bristling with geo-political tension. It's a fun read that keeps you turning the page. Tom Gray is a likeable Jason Bourne type figure and both his allies and enemies are all well-drawn. Alan McDermott is on to a winner with this series and I will definitely be reading more, both making time to read the previous instalments, and waiting for future episodes with baited breath.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 22 April 2016

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsberg

While I primarily read crime fiction, I'm not wedded to the genre. I read and review books from across the spectrum - horror, crime (obviously), literature. And to be honest I don't always understand the distinction. A number of so called literature novels have a crime at their heart. One could think of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. But what about Aravand Adiga's Booker nominated White Tiger, the protagonist of which murders his boss? Or Mohammed Hanif’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes, which focuses on the shenanigans surroundings the mysterious death of Pakistan's President Zia, and speculates as to his assassination? Then there are crime novels which appear more literary, in which mold I would place Sunset City.

For to me, Melissa Ginsberg has penned a contemplation to loss, bereavement, regret. There is a crime at the centre of this tale, the death of the protagonist's best friend, Danielle Reeves, a charismatic woman who fell into drugs and the underbelly of vice in Houston, Texas. And the blurb promises us an investigation, hints that our protagonist, Charlotte Ford, will immerse herself in this world to get to the truth. But this is misleading. For what Charlotte really does over 250 odd pages, is struggle to understand the life Danielle lived. Charlotte is equal parts fascinated by her friend’s life and appalled by the manner in which she died, falling in with Danielle’s equally alluring but anguished stripper friend, Audrey. In this twilight world of sordid adult entertainment, Charlotte meets an unwholesome cast of pornographers, drugs dealers and addicts.

But at no point does Charlotte actively investigate Danielle’s murder, which in the main occurs "off page". She meets with the officer leading the investigation, Detective Ash. She conveys leads to him, much of which turn out to be correct, but she picks these up quite by accident through her normal interactions with people from Danielle’s world.

Here then is the strength of Sunset City. In Charlotte  Ford we have a regular and three dimensional woman. She has no super powers of deduction, no unarmed combat prowess, or experience of firearms. She doesn't doggedly pursue villains or bring outlaws to justice. Rather she reacts as any one of us might in such extraordinary circumstances, with bewilderment, sorrow and tribulation. She struggles to understand how this could have happened to someone so full of life as Danielle and it is this sense of despondency that drives the narrative.

In some ways Charlotte is a curiously passive character, but only if the reader were to judge Sunset City against other, more traditional, crime novels. And this here is my problem with the book. It's not that it's a bad read, it isn't, it's actually very good. But it's been miscast. My concern is that marketed as it is as a crime novel, those readers seeking such a book will find themselves disappointed. Where this really belongs is on the literature shelves where it would shine. For Mellissa Ginsberg has written a powerful meditation on how an ordinary woman faces emotional turmoil in the face of a horrific murder which ruptures the equilibrium of her world.

5 out of 5 stars