Monthly Archives: May 2011

Review of The Last Stormlord – Book 1 of the Stormlord/Watergivers trilogy by Glenda Larke

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This book is set in a desert world where water conservation is crucial and there are large, segmented creatures called pedes which are used for transport – however don’t panic, this series isn’t a rip-off of Dune, despite the superficial similarities.

laststormlordShale is the lowest of the low – an outcast from a poor village in the heart of the desert. In the desert, water is life and currency and Shale has none. But he has a secret. It’s one thing that keeps him alive and may well save all the cities of the Quartern in the days to come. If it doesn’t get him killed first…

Terell is a slave fleeing a life as a courtesan. She finds shelter in the home of an elderly painter, but as she learns the strange and powerful secrets of his art, she fears that may have traded a life of servitude for something more perilous…

The Stormlord is dying in his tower and there is no one to take his place. He brings the rain from the distant seas to his people. Without a Stormlord, the cities of the Quartern will wither and die. Their civilisation is at the brink of disaster. If Shale and Terelle can find a way to save themselves, they may just save them all. Water is life and their wells are running dry…

And there it starts. If you’re looking for a stunningly original plotline, then you’ll be disappointed. Yes – this is the staple of classic Fantasy, two poor outcast children who have unique and disturbing talents that create difficulties for them and those around them. But Larke is a solidly good writer, who manages to weave a strong, interesting world with a host of enjoyable details that pulled me into her book and kept me turning the pages long after I should have turned out the light and gone to sleep. I love the ziggers; nasty little creatures who are used as a weapon as when starved, they head straight for the soft parts of a human face…

I also particularly enjoyed the language. There are a number of slang phrases used by the characters, such as sandcrazy, sun-dried fool and dryhead that I bonded me further with world. I feel that a lot of writers don’t consider how the environment impacts on our use of language and always groan when some science fiction/fantasy character living in a completely alien culture and society trots out a contemporary idiom or metaphor that wouldn’t sound out of place on the London tube.

The story drew me in and I enjoyed the plot twists, many of which I didn’t see coming. As with most classic Fantasy, there are some interesting moral dilemmas unfolding in this story. As water becomes ever shorter, which method is more humane in the longer term? Spreading the diminishing supplies thinly across the whole district – or choosing to exclude the poorest districts? There is also the Reduner society, a nomadic warrior race who used to roam throughout the Quartern before the rainlords and stormlords enabled city life to become a possibility, when they were driven to the margins of their original territory. They want the time of random rain to be restored, where they feel their closer bond to the unforgiving landscape will allow them to once more flourish. These issues are teased out through the two volumes I’ve read so far, and Larke does a solid job of covering both viewpoints effectively.

Any niggles? Well, I did feel that the book was a bit slow to get going – while there are some very strong, shocking scenes, Terelle’s story strand initially seemed at times a little repetitive and I found myself skimming her sections without losing the thread unduly, which tells me that a little more editorial pruning would have probably tightened up the pace and improved the narrative tension. However, the power struggle surrounding the dying Stormlord certainly gripped me and there were a couple of outstandingly enjoyable characters – Ryka, the short-sighted and grumpy rainlord was certainly my favourite – a preference underscored by her adventures in the second book, Stormlord Rising. I was also intrigued by Taquar and hope that we learn more about his motivations during the series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and its sequel, Stormlord Rising, which if anything is even better and if classic Fantasy with a well depicted world and a cast of detailed characters is your cup of tea, I’d advise you to get hold of these two books – you’re in for a treat. As for me, I’m eagerly waiting for the publication of the last book in the trilogy next year.

8/10

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Review of the play The Acid Test by Anya Reiss, at the Royal Court Theatre, London

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Dana, Ruth and Jess down shots to console the heart-broken, to comfort the anxious and just pass the time. Kicked out from the family home Jess’s Dad, Jim, invades the party with just as much recklessness as the girls. As the night passes and vodka bottles are emptied, Friday night in becomes high drama.

acidtestcastThis play, set in the living room of the girls’ flat is surrounded by the small audience on three sides which always poses additional opportunities and problems in equal measure in the staging and acting. The set, designed by Paul Willis, starts at the top of the theatre stairs as the audience troops along a scruffy corridor, complete with a row of doors and told to ‘keep going through the door of number 11’. The living room set is dressed with all sorts of enjoyable little details – including the Harry Potter book and a cheese and chives tube of Pringles… It is a suitable backdrop for one night’s emotional maelstrom – Ruth has a quarrel with her boyfriend; Dana makes a disastrous decision regarding her boss and Jess brings her father back to the flat, where drink and pot lower inhibitions revealing fault lines in each character’s lives. The result is both hilarious and poignant.

Even the excessive swearing works – and I’m no fan of strings of curse words instead of sharp, witty dialogue. But this tendency is examined during the drunken exchanges – along with the rest of their lives. What 19 year old Reiss highlights is how adrift the girls feel at a stage in their lives when they clearly think they should be adult, but don’t know how to achieve that elusive state. Ruth and Dana gravitate towards Jim on two levels; as the only male in the group who responds quite flirtatiously to them, which annoys Jesse who observes that ‘a lot of ball worship is going on, here’. But, just as interestingly, all the girls – Jesse included – crave the comfort and stability of someone more mature and experienced. It seemed to me that Reiss is unpacking the modern trend of generational ghettos, where people across the age divide no longer socialise together. At a stage in their lives where the young women realise they The-Acid-Test-007are now capable of making messes of epic proportions, there didn’t seem to be anyone else to advise them, so once the drink takes hold, they want Jim to step into that role. Unfortunately for them, Jim is not up to the task…

It is a fascinating dynamic, complemented by the superb acting. Managing to produce a credible characterisation in such a small space, yet sustain the necessary complete concentration for 90 minutes without any break is a big ask. All the actors ably rose to the challenges posed by Reiss in this taut, funny four-hander. Vanessa Kirby, the beautiful and confused Dana, manages to bring out the inherent humour of the character, without allowing the comedy to swamp the pathos of her dilemma. Phoebe Fox gives a strong performance as Ruth, flailing around in the soap opera version of her life that she believes gives it credibility – but for my money, the standout actress is Lydia Wilson’s depiction of Jesse. The part requires a great deal of control and focus, particularly in the early stages of the play, and Lydia manages to display the embarrassment and increasing discomfort connected with her father’s presence – along with the pain of their dysfunctional relationship. Dennis Lawson revels in the role of a Peter Pan figure, more than happy to bask in the admiration of the younger women, but unable to respond with anything meaningful to his own daughter’s passionate demands for something deeper. His volte face at the end of the play is entirely plausible.

All in all, The Acid Test provided me with an excellent afternoon at the theatre and if you can get hold of a ticket before the last night on 11th June, I recommend you do so, this little gem is worth watching.
9/10

Review of Hardwired Humanity by Sarah Wagner

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If you enjoy well-written, thought-provoking science fiction short stories, then this anthology is required reading. Six stories are themed around the subject of artificially augmented humans – hence the title. And while there is plenty of adventure and excitement, Wagner isn’t afraid to reflect upon the darker consequences of ‘improving’ upon nature.

As Edward McKeown discusses in his Foreword, this subject continues to have increasing relevance as medical and technological hardwiredadvances challenge our ideas of what is acceptable. In citing the example of the para-Olympian disbarred from racing against able-bodied athletes on the grounds that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage, McKeown points out that our society should be considering these issues before we get ambushed by the actuality. Enter Sarah Wagner’s string of stories which do just that…

Switch is one of the longer tales, about Spider, a young man perpetually on the run due to his amazing invention. Doomed to be constantly abandoning his life and disappearing, he is innately suspicious of people – until he rescues a beautiful young woman. Wagner’s clean, unfussy style quickly pulls us into the story, told from Spider’s viewpoint, and makes us care about the characters. Which is important when considering one of main issues she raises with this storyline. If an artificial construct commits a crime, who should be punished – the cyborg, or the programmer? Not that you are given much time to ponder these questions while engrossed in the plot. Wagner moves events along at a cracking pace with the action-packed climax making this a satisfying read.

Venus and the Birth of Zephyrus is a major contrast. More of a piece of flash fiction, it is a tale of a spy satellite becoming self aware – and discovering feelings for one of its human charges. In these shorter tales Wagner’s talent shines through. Her knack of creating poignancy in a situation without it tipping into sentimentality takes finesse and control.

When Closed Eyes Open is another longer story, told by Chase, a trainee soldier. This tale raises uncomfortable questions. Though Wagner makes it clear early on that the soldier has been artificially augmented, the ending still left me feeling queasy. And yet had me wondering whether the terrible fate inflicted on Chase and his comrades might – in such dire circumstances – still be regarded as acceptable…

Canned Man is my personal favourite. A helpless cripple, whose consciousness has been uploaded into a spaceship, this story is a stark contrast to McCaffrey’s cosier version of shipminds. Wagner’s ability to create a character wrestling with a desperate situation in two pages, is impressive. Her story Fireworks on the Abandoned Towers website is a gem – and in my opinion, Canned Man is right up alongside it.

The Wreck of the Griffin is a classic swashbuckling story of daring-do, including a wreck and a battle for survival – except the captain’s daughter is also sporting a pair of artificial arms, along with the curvy figure and feisty attitude. And our hero comes complete with a pair of spider-bots, along with the chiselled good looks and infuriating male smugness. The pace carries the reader along with plenty happening and is the least controversial of all the stories in the book – except that you are left reflecting that if the heroine hadn’t been augmented, she wouldn’t have survived their adventures…

Evolution of a Shadow is the most disturbing of all the stories in the anthology. Shade, a highly augmented fighter, is locked in a vicious battle for survival with Jacob, who was similarly upgraded, but intends to use his martial skills to raise an army of ultimate soldiers to dominate the world. So the stakes couldn’t be higher. However, when a scenario leads to a small child being tortured by her mother in order to test her healing powers – there is a sense that things have gotten thoroughly out of hand…

I am aware that in reviewing these stories, I have picked out the themes rather than focus on the fizzing plotlines, but there is certainly plenty action going on. However, one of the reasons why I love this genre, is because along with a cracking good tale, the best writers also offer me interestingly difficult moral issues to consider. And Sarah Wagner is right up there with the best.
9/10

Review of Cursed to Death – Book 4 of the Crimson Moon novels by L.A. Banks

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Written by a prolific author, this urban fantasy series joins the queue of other werewolf/vampire novels currently crowding the shelves.

Secret government operative Sasha Trudeau arrives at the scene of a murder, only to discover that a Fae creature has been killed—in a whole new kind of way. What is the meaning behind this mysterious ritualistic killing? What did the victim do to deserve it? Sasha fears that the Vampires and Unseelies have formed an unholy alliance… and they’re ready to unleash their darkest arsenal of magick yet.

Teaming up with her mate and fellow Shadow Wolf Max Hunter, Sasha tries to penetrate the paranormal community for clues. Meanwhile, members of the Wolf Clan are turning against one another as they race to uncover the meaning behind an ancient Unseelie curse. Even Sasha is not immune to this powerful magick, and soon finds herself drawn to a sensual, dangerous dance—one that could cost her life…

cursedtodeathWith the plethora of other books out there covering the same ground, an author has to create some extra twist or angle in order to stand out. Does Banks succeed in doing so? I found Sasha a reasonably well rounded protagonist, but I must confess I didn’t turn the pages because I desperately cared what happened to her. However, I have not read the previous three books in the series, so I probably have missed the plot points designed to bond the reader to the protagonist. The narrative clipped along at a satisfactory pace with plenty going on and Banks certainly knows how to ramp up the tension as the storyline progressed. But for me, the outstanding aspect of this book is the nature of the magical attack. As the title indicates, there is a curse laid on the protagonist and her group of crime fighters which Banks manages to graphically to demonstrate by their erratic behaviour. It is a tightrope. Will the reader get fed up with watching the main characters snarling at one another or struggling to cope with inappropriate feelings of desire, when they should be investigating these terrible crimes?

All too often in supernatural crime novels, I feel that the author loses sight of the unique nature of magical attacks and uses it as a storytelling device in much the same way that they’d use any other villain – like a drug baron, for instance. The books that really make this sub-genre work, are those who demonstrate just how vulnerable we all are to something we cannot see or guard against. The likes of Mike Carey and Jim Butcher brilliantly pull this off. Banks also manages to make the supernatural aspect seem truly threatening – and even animal strength, fangs and accelerated healing powers are not necessarily a sufficient defence.

My grizzles – Sasha is supposed to be embedded in a military chain of command. As the action starts to kick off, I don’t feel that she consults nearly enough with her military superiors in the way a trained soldier would. In addition, there is an implicit assumption that we, the readers are aware of the set-up and familiar with the characters that barely get a mention in this book. It is an ongoing issue with writers of long-running series, how much background information to include that fans of the series will already know. However I don’t think in this case, Banks has got the balance quite right.

In a sub-genre that is often very explicit in the depiction of violence and sex, and regularly interspersed with graphic language to match – it is also worth noting that while Banks makes it quite plain what is going on, there is nothing in here that would make you want to hide this book under the cushion should the young teenager in your life waft into the room. All in all, a polished, accomplished book by a prolific author who clearly knows her trade.
7/10

Review of U is for Undertow – Book 21 of the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton

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This is the latest offering in the long-running and very successful series from Sue Grafton featuring her female protagonist Kinsey Millhone, set in the 1980’s. I suppose it could be parked on the shelf in the ‘Historical Thriller’ section…

uisforundertowIn 1960’s Santa Teresa, California, a child is kidnapped and never returned. Twenty years later, Michael Sutton contacts private detective Kinsey Millhone for help. He claims to have recalled a strange and disturbing memory which just might provide the key to the mystery. He now believes he stumbled across the kidnappers burying Mary Claire Fitzhugh’s body…

Michael’s account is indistinct – he was only six years old at the time of the kidnapping – and even members of his family try to discredit his evidence. But Kinsey is certain there is something vital within Michael’s recollections. And even when what is eventually unearthed isn’t what anyone expected, she can’t quite let go of the case.

As the protagonists of the tragedy are gradually brought to light, from Country Club parents to their free-living, hippy children, the truth finally begins to emerge. And while stepping back into the past, Kinsey discovers more about her own history too…

Those of you already acquainted with Kinsey in her alphabetical adventures that started back in 1982 with A is for Alibi will be familiar with Grafton’s slow-burn style and steady build of everyday details giving us yet another slice of life in Santa Teresa back in 1988. Those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure perhaps need to be aware that Grafton offers a series of cinematically sharp scenes through Kinsey’s eyes, complete with an eclectic mix of characters – including Henry, Kinsey’s octogenarian landlord; Rosa, the Hungarian owner of the local café and the stand-alone cast of characters that make up the scenario in this particular book. If this is the first time you’ve stumbled across this series, go for it and dive into U is for Undertow. While you may not be completely up to speed with the ins and outs of Kinsey’s background, Grafton doesn’t assume that you are a long-time fan and so the books can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the rest of the canon – a refreshing change, these days.

If graphic gore, two-dimensional victims and a clichéd protagonist have lost their lustre, then Grafton’s careful plotting and quirky heroine might tick your boxes. Her solid characterisation gives us a real insight into what makes Kinsey tick – her stubborn refusal to give up when an investigation gets difficult; her fear of commitment; her short-fused reaction to authority; her love of junk food – well, any food she hasn’t had to cook, really… all these foibles along with a dozen others makes her an enjoyable mass of contradictions in the grand tradition of the best fictional detectives. In my opinion, Kinsey ranks right up there with Morse, Rebus and Lord Peter Wimsey.

As with all long-running series, some books are better than others. If Grafton has a besetting sin, at times she rushes the final denouement to the long build-up, so that the final flurry of action rounding off the mystery feels a tad unsatisfactory. Not so in U is for Undertow. Grafton manages to tie up all the lose ends in this plot completely successfully – leaving me with only one nagging worry. Now there are only five more letters of the alphabet left, what will I do for my fix of Kinsey Millhone once Grafton has reached the letter Z?
9/10

Review of Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

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This Hugo Award winner of 2005 brought back some interesting echoes of a book I’d read in 2009 – Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, where the crew are trapped inside a space ship travelling through time to the end of the universe.

spinThe time is the day after tomorrow, and three adolescents – Diane and Jason Lawton, twins, and their best friend, Tyler Dupree – are out stargazing. Thus they witness the erection of a planet-spanning shield around the globe, blocking out the universe. Spin chronicles the next 30-odd years in the lives of the trio, during which 300 billion years will pass outside the shield, thanks to an engineered time discontinuity. Jason, a genius, will invest his celibate life in unravelling cosmological mysteries. Tyler will become a doctor and act as our narrator and Jason’s confidante, while nursing his unrequited love for Diane, who in turn plunges into religious fanaticism.

Told in first person POV through Tyler’s viewpoint, we have a ringside seat into the fractured society caused by the shield and echoed in its impact on the three main characters. Wilson manages to keep the narrative bouncing between a social commentary on the unfolding science fiction events driving the story, as well as giving us the protagonist’s personal journey. It is a clever trick to pull off and one that he manages with deft skill.

However, the fractured narrative timeline means the reader has to stay sharp – there were occasions when I had to flip back a couple of pages to ensure complete understanding of what was happening. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation. Some books are light enough to be able to skim through without paying absolute attention – and this isn’t one of them.

Wilson’s excellent handling of the main characters gives us a real sense of their emotional damage, alongside the consequences for near-future society of this immense happening. I wasn’t too sure about the Martian, however. While I had a vivid image of his odd physical appearance, the sense of ‘otherness’ Wilson was striving to portray seemed to get rather swallowed by the events cascading around his sudden arrival. However, this is a picky point.

Spin does exactly what a well-written science fiction book should – presents an interesting technological issue, creating plenty of drama, while recording the reactions of the main protagonists and addressing some thought-provoking conclusions or themes. Through Diane’s experiences, Wilson takes a hard look at what religion has to offer frightened humanity – and what worldwide fear can do to civilisation. Somewhat predictably, religion doesn’t come off very well, but Wilson is adept at giving us snapshot views of how the world is coping, without holding up his narrative with pages of info dumping.

His handling of the alien shield encompassing Earth was convincing enough to suspend my disbelief throughout the novel – even to the jaw-dropping and frankly improbable ending. What he captured very ably was the desperate search for answers – the why this was happening. All in all, an excellent read and a real treat for both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sci-fi fans.
10/10

Review of Undead and Unemployed – Book 2 of the Queen Betsy series by Mary Janice Davidson

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This is one of the fluffier offerings of chic-spec I’ve read. In a sub-genre that generally doesn’t take itself too seriously, this book is more firmly tongue in cheek than most – think Clueless rather than Buffy. For starters, the protagonist is a ditzy blonde with a thing for shoes. Nothing can make Betsy Taylor give up her shoe fetish – not even dying and rising as the new Queen of the Vampires. Only being royally undead doesn’t mean there aren’t still credit card bills to be paid. Luckily, Betsy lands her dream job selling designer shoes at Macy’s Department Store.

But then there’s a string of vampire murders in town and Betsy has to enlist the help of the one vamp who makes her blood boil: the undead&unemployedoh-so-sexy Eric Sinclair. Only the last time she ran into Sinclair she accidentally fulfilled an ancient prophesy – and ended up married to him…

Written in first person POV, the story might be fairly light-hearted – but it is well crafted and the character is convincingly dim. Which I find endearing – and I am conscious that writing a stupid heroine isn’t as easy as it might seem, having tried it and thrown the result across the room in disgust…

If I have a niggle, it is that Betsy tends to go on and on about how much she dislikes Eric – while the reader knows that in stories of this type that means that it is a sure thing the pair of them will finally get together. I also found the liberal use of the f-word rather jarring. I realise that swearing and graphic sex scenes are par for the course in a lot of books in this sub-genre. But in this particular story, the swearing just didn’t seem to fit the chirpy and humorous mood – having said that, I’m conscious that I’m older by several decades than the target audience.

But do I celebrate the fact that this book – and a slew of others like it is out there? You bet. If only I’d had this sub-genre to fall back on years ago when I wanted to chill out from the grittier stuff – instead of tired old Mills and Boon! Young women brought up on a diet of quality fantasy want something ‘other’ than the clichéd staples of secretaries dating bosses… nurses dating doctors… in their light romances. And now they have it with vamp chicks strutting around, biting/agonising over human lovers and/or solving murders. The love interest might be just as trite – but at least the heroine is less annoyingly vapid and the hero is less worryingly chauvinistic.

And if your taste runs to this sub-genre, you could do a lot worse than Undead and Unemployed.
7/10

Review of Age of Ra by James Lovegrove

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As the cover denotes, this is a military science fiction adventure – but being James Lovegrove, it isn’t quite that straightforward…

ageofraDavid Westwynter, previous CEO of the famous Senet boardgame company, is a special operations officer in His Pharaonic Majesty’s Service on a covert mission in Arabia that goes wrong. Captured and narrowly escaping being blown to pieces, he is presumed dead by his own side and decides against escaping from his beautiful captor, when she leads him to The Lightbringer. This masked stranger has achieved the impossible – in the space of a few short years, he has managed to unite the warlords of Freegypt. This one part of the world has escaped being under the control of any of the destructive and uncaring Egyptian Pantheon, whose family feuds and squabbles have plunged Earth into habitual war for the past century. The Lightbringer promises to rid the world of these gods…

It is a fascinating premise. Lovegrove, being the writer he is, doesn’t spend much time filling in his complex world. In between skirmishes, we readers are expected to keep up, given the info-nuggets dropped by David and his comrades in arms. So this is a more demanding read than your average shoot ‘em up. However, despite the background complexity, there is plenty of action for the war-minded and I think this book would make a wonderful film.

I thoroughly enjoyed some delicious scenes featuring the gods themselves – who manage to make your average dysfunctional family appearing on the Gerry Springer Show look like the Waltons. Lovegrove’s depiction of the weary, well-meaning patriarch, Ra, is particularly smart and witty.

There are some interesting twists throughout the book – especially when it comes to revealing who the Lightbringer is. I initially was a bit uneasy at the choice, concerned that there were some colonial/right-wing views seeping into the story. Let’s face it, some military science fiction tends to be somewhat conservative in its political outlook. But Lovegrove is too sophisticated for that – and by the end, wraps everything up extremely well. To the extent that he has given an opening for the next two books, The Age of Odin and The Age of Zeus, which I shall definitely make an effort to read.
8/10

Review of The Complaints by Ian Rankin

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Those of you who were dismayed when Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series came to an end in Exit Music will have cause to rejoice when you pick up this offering. The Complaints sees Rankin at his very best.

thecomplaintsNobody likes The Complaints – they’re the cops who investigate other cops. Complaints and Conduct Department, to give them their full title, but known colloquially as ‘The Dark Side’, or simply ‘The Complaints’. It’s where Malcolm Fox works. He’s just had a result, and should be feeling good about himself. But he’s a man with problems of his own. He has an increasingly frail father in a care home and a sister who persists in an abusive relationship – something which Malcolm cannot seem to do anything about.

But, in the midst of an aggressive Edinburgh winter, the reluctant Fox is given a new task. There’s a cop called Jamie Breck, and he’s dirty. The problem is, no one can prove it. But as Fox takes on the job, he learns that there’s more to Breck than anyone thinks. This knowledge will prove dangerous, especially when a vicious murder intervenes far too close to home for Fox’s liking.

And so starts an adventure that takes Fox way beyond his comfort zone – where he finds himself being constantly tested as the storyline continues to ramp up the tension. It is important that the reader cares about Fox, as he is right at the heart of this novel – and for my money, Fox is a lot more likeable than Rebus. Divorced and a recovering alcoholic, Fox struggles to stay on the side of the good guys – which is why he works hard to weed out dirty cops who become far too friendly with the criminals they are chasing – or bend too many rules to get a conviction. However, he also manages not to come across as a prig – largely helped by his troubled relationships with his father and sister and the laconic banter that threads through the book, providing a few smiles and light relief from the grim backdrop of the unfolding banking crisis and a Scottish winter.

Rankin’s unfussy style manages to weave a story packed with plot twists corkscrewing off in all directions, set in the seedier side of Edinburgh, which is described in cinematically sharp detail without holding up the pace or defusing the tension. Rankin is the master of Scottish noir and while there are others who come close – like Christopher Brookmyre for instance – no one does it better. Certainly when Rankin is at his storming best, as in The Complaints. Roll over Rebus – here comes Foxy…
9/10