Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The President’s Garden by Muhsin Al-Ramli

This is a novel that I wanted to like more than I did. The novel was billed as a “contemporary tragedy of epic proportions”, basically it promised to tell the calamitous story of all that has befallen Iraq in the past few decades, but from an Iraqi perspective. There is much literature about the country, both non-fiction and fiction, though most we read in the west is written by us: westerners, Americans and British. Much of this canon of work is well meaning, a lot of it is insightful and has real worth. But what has been lacking is an Iraqi voice. There is some work published by Iraqis, but not a lot.

So, I hoped that Muhsin Al-Ramli would help fill that void that appears on my bookshelf. To a certain extent, he undoubtedly did. There is much to be admired in this novel, which tells the story of three friends and their immediate families. At risk of sounding patronising, they’re simple folk, peasants from the country who till the land, rear goats, and very rarely stray afar. Then the war with Iran breaks out, a conflict that was as traumatising for the peoples of those two nations as the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was to Europe. The war with Iran was supposed to be quick, but lasts almost a decade; then, just when peace is established, Iraq’s tyrant Saddam Hussein opts to invade Kuwait. Once again, the village and our three protagonists’ lives are torn asunder as America and her allies kick Saddam’s troops out of the Emirate. One of the friends gets a job as a gardener in one of the presidential palaces (where the book gets its name) and here he sees first-hand the barbarity of the Saddam regime. Then finally, we reach 2003 and the invasion of Iraq. Saddam is deposed and the country spirals into a horrific cycle of crime and sectarian murder.

That’s the basic storyline, so what didn’t I like? Well no doubt I’m going to get critical comments about this, but I found The President’s Garden just too rambling in places. I felt that the publisher needed to reign the author in, that parts of the book needed editing. This is the first novel by the author, Muhsin Al-Ramli, that I’ve read, but apparently, he is an accomplished novelist, academic and poet. Perhaps this explains things. In my experience, writers who reach the pinnacle of their profession can often do what they like; where a lesser author would feel the editor’s pen, they don’t. A good example of this phenomenon is Stephen King, some of who’s novels in my opinion could easily lose 100 pages or so. King and Al-Ramli might be working in different genres, but I had the same feeling reading parts of The President’s Garden as I have had when reading some of the horror master’s longer works.

At risk of contradicting all that I’ve just said, at 352 pages, The President’s Garden isn’t that long a novel. But it cuts off almost mid-sentence, which is odd. Apparently, there’s a sequel to come which picks up exactly where this ended. Presumably the sequel will be of a similar length. So, that will be, what? 700 pages in all? Which begs the question, if Al-Ramli had been more disciplined and had written a tighter manuscript, would there be a need for such a strange cut off at the end of the first novel? Would there be need for a sequel at all?

2 out of 5 stars

Butterfly On The Storm by Walter Lucius

This is a novel that grabs you by the throat from the upshot. A girl has been found in the middle of a country road. It’s a hit and run. Paramedics and police arrive. While examining the child, they discover that the she is actually a he. The boy is dressed in girls’ clothing, makeup and jewellery. He is rushed to the hospital where journalist Farah Hafez so happens to be, having come to check up on her opponent in a martial arts tournament who she hospitalised. She hears the boy speak, recognises his language as her mother tongue, talks to him, becomes emotionally involved from there.

The mystery of the boy is further deepened by the discovery of a burning station wagon nearby, two charred corpses within. When Farah goes to investigate, she happens upon a nearby deserted villa. There is evidence of a shootout and people dragged through the gravel.

Farah isn’t the only people who are affected by the boy and the circumstances surrounding his discovery. There’s Danielle, the trauma doctor who accompanied the paramedics and administered first aid to him on the road. There’s the two cops tasked with cracking the case and bringing the perpetrators to justice, one older, jaded, corrupt, his partner younger and idealistic.

There’s a lot going for this novel and I can see why it’s been compared to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Farah and her journalism are centre stage in the same way that Mikael Blomkvist was in Larsson’s work. But whereas Blomkvist was relatively straight (Lisbeth Salander being the quirky one) Farah Hafez has issues of aggression and can’t help but stray when in a relationship. She’s relatively well-drawn as a character, as are many of the lesser characters. This is a plus for the book, as there is quite an extensive cast of supporting players. Bar a few of the baddies who can be a little one-dimensional, most of this supporting cast are fleshed out nicely.

That said there were some issues I had with the author’s characterisation of Farah Hafez. At one point, she cheats on her partner. She has commitment issues, I get that. She thinks he’s making too much of a fuss, becoming too antagonist to her. I get that too. But unfortunately, the author steps into Farah’s head at this point, writes this scene from her point of view and her thoughts on this are cold. I’m no prude, I’m not moralising, but here he needlessly sheds our sympathy. There are a couple of moments like this, where Farah comes across as unfeeling and as a reader I felt myself recoil slightly from her. I have no problem with unlikeable protagonists, I read a lot of noir. But when a character is sold to you as likeable, and then they do something to make you turn against them, it’s more than a little disconcerting.

There are some problems too with the odd plot point. Mainly these surround police procedure. At the start of the novel, the police just cordon off the road, assuming the boy to be just an “ordinary” hit and run. This, even though the child ran into the middle of the road in the middle of the night, seemingly came out of nowhere. This was despite the discovery that he was dressed as a girl. At no point did they think this odd, think to search the woods. It is left for Farah to alert them to the fact that they ought to look at the nearby villa. Nor do they immediately link the boy to the nearby burning car, despite their relative proximity. When Farah first goes to the scene after the boy is brought into the hospital, the crime scene investigators let her breach the cordon and fall into conversation with her. This simply wouldn’t happen with modern law enforcement. Don’t get me wrong, I get that this is a novel and some things need be sacrificed to creative licence, but some of this was just more than a step too far.

One final criticism is that Butterfly On The Storm, which apparently is the first of a trilogy, tries to fit too much into its plot. It encompasses Afghanistan (where Farah and the boy hail from), corruption in Amsterdam (where the novel is set), corruption and organised crime in South Africa, and oligarchs, corruption and organised crime in Russia. At risk of giving spoilers, towards the end, the novel even touches on Chechen terrorism. For example, in just one chapter the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings (and the surrounding conspiracy theories) and the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 are alluded too. Before any readers of this review panic, I’m not giving too much away here, as all this really is just a minor part of the plot which pops up in just a handful of chapters. My point in mentioning this is that there is more than enough here for another book. If the next two in the trilogy are equally crammed with ideas, one has to wonder why not just write a longer series? Why not let the stories breath?

Having said all this, I need to end on a positive. For none of these points ruined the book for me. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Butterfly On The Storm is a compelling, engrossing read. It succeeds despite its technical glitches and rough edges. I certainly will read the rest of the trilogy and the author, Walter Lucius, is one to watch.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Written In Bones by James Oswald

This is the first title by this author that I have read and is the seventh in his series of Inspector Tony McLean novels. I’ve heard a lot about the author James Oswald and have intended to read his books for a while, not least due to his interesting publishing journey. I read that he found it hard to get an agent or a publisher because his novels crossed genres. Their crime novels but with a supernatural bent and that apparently confused people in the industry. So eventually he self-published Natural Causes and The Book of Souls (the first two Tony McLean novels) and to cut a long story short, they succeeded and the traditional publishing houses came calling. It’s a great story and for an aspiring writer like myself, an inspiration.

So anyway, I’ve had both Natural Causes and The Book of Souls on my Kindle for a while now and for various reasons never got around to reading them. Written in Bones came up on NetGalley, the review website I use, and accepting that I was diving in to a series at book seven and thus things might go over my head, I requested it. I’ve now read it and, simply, wow. I can now see what all the fuss is about.

Written in Bones finds Tony McLean having to deal with a corpse that’s fallen from a great height into a tree. How did it get there? Was it dead before it fell to become impaled in the tree, or did the fall kill him? Things are complicated by the fact that the young son of a murdered gangster was the first person to find the body. Was this pure coincidence or is someone trying to send a macabre message? Furthermore, the dead man is a former cop, imprisoned for corruption, before apparently turning over a new leaf to found a successful drug counselling charity.

As I say, this is my first taste of James Oswald’s work, but it certainly won’t be my last. While Written in Bones is number seven in the series, it can be read as a standalone. Reading the novel, it’s clear that there is back story that one is missing out if one hasn’t read the previous volumes, but the author explains what’s necessary when needs be without overburdening the newbie reader with voluminous explanation. That said, if you like Written in Bones as much as I did you’ll be snapping up the author’s back catalogue.

One of the pleasures of being a book reviewer is discovering a new author. I’m late to the James Oswald party but now I’m here I intend to indulge! I already have the first two volumes to read, soon I’ll be buying the rest.

An excellent read, 5 out of 5 stars. 

Pigeon-Blood Red by Ed Duncan

Pigeon Blood Red takes its title from the McGuffin of the tale, a valuable necklace made up of pigeon blood red rubies. A businessman with a gambling habit who’s in hock to a loan shark happens upon the loan shark’s necklace and steals it. Off he runs to Honolulu where his estranged wife is holidaying. The loan shark tasks Rico, his top hoodlum, to go after the businessman to get the necklace back.

This is a standard gangster tale. I don’t know if it’s the author’s first novel but apparently, it’s the first of a trilogy. Pigeon Blood Red is a solid effort, the characters are well rounded, the narrative unfolds well enough, the sense of place in Honolulu is convincingly brought to life.

For all that though there’s something lacking here. This isn’t really a criticism as such. In a crowded field (crime fiction is possibly one of the biggest genres there is, with new titles arriving all the time) it’s difficult for a story to stand out from the crowd. Some people say it’s about originality, that the author must tell an original tale to be successful. But is that really the case? Are not many a title alike? So why do some become wildly popular and successful and others don’t? My own view is that a story needs a little magic fairy dust, that intangible quality that makes it shine. We know it when we see it, but when pushed to explain what it is, it remains frustratingly ephemeral.

Pigeon Blood Red is a point in hand. Everything ticks the right boxes here, but for some reason it just didn’t shine for me. That’s not to say that the author doesn’t have potential, he does. Pigeon Blood Red was enjoyable enough and like many an author he may well hone his craft over time, future books might well hit the sweet spot.

This is a solidly told tale and if you like gangster tales, tales of high stakes manhunts and people out of their depth, then you could well do worse.
3 out of 5 stars. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

BLOG TOUR! Deadly Game by Matt Johnson BLOG TOUR!

This is the author’s second novel and follows on from his debut Wicked Game. Once again, we join ex-SAS officer and Metropolitan Police Inspector Robert Finlay, who in the aftermath of the murder of former SAS soldiers in the first novel, is something of a toxic quality in the Met. Colleagues see him as a bullet magnet and many don’t want to work with him, while some of his superiors guess that he took it into his own hands to put a stop to the murders and don’t fully trust him. So not sure what to do with him, he’s assigned to a unit investigating sex-trafficking. This isn’t only the decision of the police, for Finlay’s MI5 liaison, Toni Fellowes, has her own agenda. She helps engineer his transfer to the unit, and his choice of holiday destination for a recuperation break to deal with his PTSD, as she needs help infiltrating a Romanian family who own the publishing house that has printed a controversial tell-all memoir by a former soldier. 

To say Deadly Game is brilliant would do it an injustice. This is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years. I subscribe to the author’s round-robin email and in one he expressed his fears about writing a second novel. Could it ever live up to the first? Might it be a disappointment? I reviewed Wicked Game and while it was very good, it suffered from certain problems. Most noticeably it was a novel of two halves, the first half reading like a memoir, the second like a thriller. Deadly Game has no such qualms, it knows exactly what it is: a thriller. While it is undoubtedly based on the authors long experiences as both a soldier and a police officer and Johnson has clearly researched the issues well, the book is all the better for having a strong narrative purpose from the outset. 

There are several threads running through Deadly Game which ring remarkably true. Operation Cyclone features strongly, the CIA-led effort to arm and train the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation. While a character called Chad Collins, the author of the tell-all book MI5 want to put a stop to, is clearly modelled on Philip Sessarego, aka Tom Carew, the author of a book called Jihad! Sessarego had claimed he was a member of the SAS who in the eighties was tasked with infiltrating Afghanistan and training the mujahedeen, only to be exposed as a fake. As with the character of Collins in Deadly Game, Sessarego had in fact never passed SAS selection. 

This brings me to an issue with Deadly Game, one that plagues many a thriller. In the novel, the intelligence services are desperate for Operation Cyclone not to be known to the wider public, fearing the consequences. This is a feature of many a thriller – the intelligence services/government’s fear of exposure and a willingness to do anything to prevent it. But due to a combination of public apathy and cynicism, the public rarely react to such things. Operation Cyclone is now well known and has caused hardly a stir. Similarly, as far back as 1998, revered SAS legend Ken Connor, published a history of the SAS in which he revealed members of the service had trained mujahedeen fighters in Scotland. This again features in Deadly Game as something the public must never know, but upon publication of Connor’s book, reaction was muted. More recently, we’ve had inquiries which revealed the Government misled us over Iraq and Libya, once again with little public reaction. While Mervyn King the former governor of the Bank of England, is on record as saying he can’t understand why there hasn’t been a greater reaction to the banks malfeasance in the financial crisis. Yes, people have been angry, but there has been very little in the way of actual action. 

So, reading Deadly Game, as with other thrillers, I wondered whether the intelligence services really would go to such efforts to prevent the truth from coming out. If recent history teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment really has little to fear. Though perhaps this is to look at things the wrong way. As Mervyn King’s comments show, perhaps the establishment expects more and are as surprised as the rest of us when they get away with their wrongdoing. And maybe the public has the last laugh after all, for what was the rise of Farage, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, if not a reaction to all the illegality and lies told us over the years? Perhaps the intelligence services, while not knowing the exact form the anger will take, are right to fear exposure, knowing that in some way the drip, drip, drip will come back to haunt us all. 

One niggling point I must mention, and really this is the only flaw I found in Deadly Game, the author repeatedly referred to a female firearms officer as a “WPC”. With respect to the author, it shows how long he’s been out of the service as female police officers are now simply PCs like their male counterparts. This is a minor criticism and does not reflect the author’s portrayal of women in the novel. There are numerous, strong female characters in Johnson’s books and in fact it was for this reason the use of WPC was so galling. The anachronism stuck out because the book is so good and I only mention it in the hope he will take notice for the third title. 

As I hope that I have conveyed in this review, Deadly Game is a fantastic novel. It is a page-turning thriller but so much more. It really made me think about the world, not just terrorism, but the lengths the secret state will go to to prevent secrets from spilling, whether they are justified, the implications on public life. I can’t recommend this book enough and can’t wait until the third instalment 

5 out of 5 stars.