Monday, 25 June 2018

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

The Wolves of Winter can best be described as a post-apocalyptic, dystopia. Nothing unusual in that other than it’s not YA. Most novels of this type seem to be firmly aimed at the young adult market – think Hunger Games as just one example – and hey, people like me who’ve always had a fondness for the genre can’t help but feel a little left out. 

Lynn McBride lives with her family in the frozen wastes of the Canadian Yukon. Society has collapsed after global war followed by a deadly flu pandemic and they fled city life for first Alaska and then the isolation of the Canadian tundra. They’ve seen no one else in years (apart from one antisocial neighbouring survivor) and survive by hunting and foraging. When Jax, a mystery stranger arrives on the scene, it disturbs the equilibrium of their contained world.

Jax heralds the arrival of further survivors, notably the Immunity, the remnants of a shadowy government agency, who immediately before the fall of civilisation were attempting to staunch the spread of the virus by setting up isolation zones. Without divulging spoilers, it quickly transpires that the Immunity are not all they seem and in turn this leads to Lynn unearthing dark secrets about her own family.

The Wolves of Winter is engaging enough, it certainly kept me turning the page. Some of the description of the cold tundra landscape was beautiful and evocative. The book doesn’t break the mould however and there was nothing here I hadn’t encountered in previous books of its ilk. Furthermore, while aimed at adults, Wolves of Winterhas a definite YA feel, so much so I regularly forgot the protagonist was twenty-five years old rather than a teenager. This isn’t really a criticism as such, many adults enjoy reading YA fiction. That said, I picked up this title because I wanted something grittier, imagining a dystopian version of The Revenant; I assumed that as a novel aimed at adults this is what I would get but instead found this indistinguishable from many of the YA offerings.

In conclusion, The Wolves of Winter is an accomplished effort but it’s by far the best example of this genre that I’ve read.

Operation Countryman by Dick Kirby

In the early noughties, two books were published on corruption within the ranks of London’s Metropolitan Police in the 1990s. The first was Bent Coppers by the BBC Journalist Graeme McLagan, the second was Untouchablesby two former Guardian journalists, Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn. The two titles covered the same territory, the same allegations, the same cases; they both agreed that there had been corruption within the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. But there the similarity ended, the two reaching starkly different conclusions. Whereas Bent Coppers saw the Met’s attempts to stamp out corruption as largely successful and was in general admiring of the secret unit set up to root out the bent cops, Untouchables was far more critical, arguing the anti-corruption crusade was itself corrupt, guilty of ineptitude when confronting those officers who were truly guilty while hounding innocents from the ranks. 

Whatever the truth of the Met’s success in tackling police corruption in the 1990’s, the extent of such corruption is often hotly debated. The Met and other UK police forces often cite rotten apples: lone officers falling for temptation, the rest of the force being honest. Their differences aside, both Bent Coppers and Untouchables argued that it was worse than this, that while corruption was still a minority, it amounted to rotten barrels rather than individual apples. Even so, few would argue that the police haven’t cleaned up their act since the bad old days of the 1970’s and 80’s. Television series, such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes,have popularised the view that the police back then were knuckle-dragging racists and misanthropes, who all too often pocketed a bribe. 

The belief that the police had a serious corruption problem in years gone by is well founded. In 1969, The Times published an account of detectives taking bribes that led to three officers jailed in 1972. Later in the decade, the Clubs and Vice Unit was found to be seriously on the take, with DCS Bill Moody most famously convicted. Finally, there was Operation Countryman, a widescale investigation into allegations of corruption in the City of London force, an investigation that soon widened to the Met as well. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of Countryman. The investigation, which petered out in ignominious failure, polarises people to this day. Some believe there was little corruption to start with, that by then the Met had cleaned up its act and recovered from the scandals of before. Others see an establishment coverup, one that pre-empts alleged cover-ups to follow.

Operation Countrymanby Dick Kirby is the first, and probably last, book to examine Countryman. This is for two reasons: firstly, the Countryman report has never been published, has in fact been buried in the National Archives, while secondly, many of the original participants have passed away. Kirby, himself a former Met detective, has pulled out all the stops, used all his contacts, to speak to as many people as he can from the period. The result is a unique and outstanding work of scholarship, albeit one that is far from perfect.

Kirby is clearly of the school of thought that Operation Countryman was an inept and largely pointless exercise, characterised by much incompetence and not a little vindictiveness. In fact, the thrust of his book is very similar to the conclusions Gillard and Flynn reach in Untouchables regarding efforts to tackle corruption in the nineties. Namely, that the anti-corruption investigations were themselves fatally flawed. But whereas the efforts to target corruption in the Met in the 1990’s were internal, Countryman was run by an external force, namely Dorset Police. Why a rural force with comparatively little serious crime was chosen, rather than one of the big metropolitan forces such as Liverpool or Birmingham, is a mystery Kirby cannot solve; like others then and since he is left scratching his head with disbelief. One revelation to come from this title is that many of the Dorset officers assigned to Countryman were traffic cops, promoted and given the title “detective” purely for the investigation. Was it any wonder that they floundered? Many of the allegations of corruption came from career criminals and the Countryman team soon ran into trouble offering them immunity for their crimes in return for testimony. This again is prescient of conclusions reached by Untouchables, that the 1990’s investigation was too gullible and was led astray by those it tried to cultivate in the criminal underworld.

But there are serious deficiencies in Kirby’s work. The biggest is his tone. Whereas Gillard and Flynn, as serious and professional journalists, marshalled their evidence and set out their conclusions with a devastating conciseness, Kirby sets out his stall early on with partiality that often borders on sneering. This is an author steeped in history as a former Met Flying Squad officer, who appears to take the Operation Countryman inquiries undoubted failings personally. To be clear, this is not to say that Kirby isn’t right. He’s done his research, he’s spoken to many people. His conclusions about Countryman might well be correct. But it’s difficult to judge this from the narrative because the tone of the book comes across as biased, whether or not it in fact is. 

Unlike Bent Coppers and Untouchables, books written about corruption in the Met in the 1990s, both of which accept that there was a corruption problem (though how serious it was is still a matter of debate), Kirby believes there was no corruption uncovered within the Met by Countryman. Rather, what corruption discovered was confined to the City force. Furthermore, he convincingly argues that justice here owes more to an honest City detective, John Simmonds, than to Countryman. This last point is almost certainly true, (other books which touch on Countryman have concluded similar, not least Craft and Crime by Mike Nevile). But was there really no corruption uncovered in the Met? When corruption reared its ugly head in the sixties and seventies, then later in the nineties (albeit, almost certainly to a lesser degree) it seems difficult to believe.

Here, again, we come back to the tone of Operation Countryman. Reading this title, one can’t help but be hugely impressed by the research the author has conducted, the people he has spoken to and the facts he has marshalled. The apparent bias and the sneering disdain he holds for the Countryman team however fatally undermine his case and lead the reader to wonder whether, unconsciously perhaps, he discounted findings that did not fit his case. Another possibility is that people who held views diametrically opposed to his conclusions refused to speak to him. To be sure, this is all speculation; it might well be that his arguments are sound. In which case, he would have been better served by holding back and letting the facts speak for themselves.

To be sure, Operation Countryman is well worth a read, and as likely the only title to be published on the scandal, a worthy addition to the scholarship of police corruption in the UK context. That said, the author can’t help but wander into polemic and this only weakens his arguments.

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 to 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 on edge. As the trip continues unpleasant things begin 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 moor, what happened and why.

Sam Haysom tells his story with aplomb. The characters are well rounded and this is a spooky and creepy 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 authors 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