Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review of Lex Trent Fighting With Fire – Book 2 of the Lex Trent series by Alex Bell

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Lex Trent is reigning champion of The Games contested between fickle Gods using human playing pieces. He has it all. Fame. Glory. Wealth. An enormous ego. But The Games are about to begin again and the Goddess of Luck wants Lex to defend their title. A challenge he can’t resist, despite the risk of death, because the final round will take place in the Wild West, giving Lex the chance to claim the legendary Sword of Life (who wouldn’t want that?). With Lex’s mix of skill, quick-wittedness and no small amount of outright cheating, he can’t lose! Can he? Luck may usually be a lady to Lex… but in the Wild West they play by their own rules… and Lex has never been good with rules.

lex trentAnd that’s the back cover blurb. As you can see, this Godpunk offering is distinctly tongue- in-cheek and when I skimmed the first couple of pages, it was the humour that drew me in. And the fact that Lex was in a very tricky spot… Although that seems to be his speciality – getting into impossible positions and then having to blag/cheat/improvise himself out of them.

This is an amusing Fantasy mash-up that shamelessly borrows from all sorts of other genres and then subverts them. In addition to Lex, there is a cast of interesting and vividly drawn characters – a couple of them are nearly as slippery as Lex, who is very much the classic anti-hero. His tendency to break or bend rules according to his whim or particular needs creates a fair amount of the narrative tension. The classic Quest, where the chosen champions are set tasks and have to at least stay alive and at best win the round, is the backdrop where Lex can demonstrate his sleight of hand and greedy acquisitiveness.

The risk with an amoral anti-hero, of course, is that not only does he thoroughly annoy his fellow characters, but also ticks off the reader. I’m not a great fan of anti-heroes – but whether it was the humour, or the occasional shafts of kindness that occasionally surface – or maybe the sheer madcap exuberance of Bell’s writing – but I was alternately amused and entertained all though Lex’s adventures. And the dragon had me laughing aloud…

If you enjoy your Fantasy when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, then track down this series. As for me, I’m off to find out what else Bell has written – anyone capable of such deft writing is worth reading again.
9/10

Review of Dominion by C.J. Sansom

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I have always enjoyed C.J. Sansom’s writing – we’ve bought the whole Matthew Shardlake series – read my review of Revelation here. But this alternate historical thriller is something of a departure for Sansom – would I enjoy it as much as his tales of Tudor crime and his bleak but very accomplished Winter in Madrid?

Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long dominionGerman war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.

Civil servant David Fitzgerald has been passing on government secrets after the tragic death of his son. While his wife Sarah is increasingly suspicious of the late nights and week-end stints in the office. But as events sweep this middle-class couple up into the political mincing machine, they cross paths with Gestapo Sturmbannfűhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant and implacable hunter of men…

Which is more or less the blurb – except for the spoilers. What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. With much of the elderly industrial infrastructure still in place, the mines are still in the hands of individual owners who are running them into the ground. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.

However skilful the scene setting is, even in an alternate history thriller, the meat of the book is the plot and characters. Does Sansom’s tale at the heart of his fog-swathed landscape deliver the goods? Absolutely. David Fitzgerald is utterly convincing as a ‘small man’ who feels driven to try and do something against the present regime, while Sarah, his wife, still grieving for her dead son, is only too aware of his growing detachment. Sansom shows how corrosive lies can be to a relationship – even if it is for the best of reasons.

And when hapless Frank Muncaster, physically frail misfit, is stranded in a mental hospital and becomes the nexus of the story, I was reminded of Sansom’s other physically compromised protagonist. Both Frank and Matthew Shardlake are defined by other people’s reaction towards them from early childhood, despite their cleverness. However Frank is more compromised as his strangeness leaves him vulnerable in a world where a masculine ideal is increasingly modelled on Hitler’s Youth.

The final climax to the story is both enthralling and shocking – and has left me musing on his disturbing, unsettling tale. Because in the end, you are forced to wonder how you would react if you were faced with the same circumstances. And the truth is, of course, you don’t ever really know until you find yourself in that situation. I have read some reviews that have grumbled about the length of this book – but despite my intolerance for overwritten, wordy tomes the size and weight of a breezeblock, I have no problem with the length of Dominion. This complex, layered world is worth the effort.
10/10

Review of Indie EBOOK Lady of Devices – Book 1 of Magnificent Devices by Shelley Adina

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I’ve a real soft spot for steampunk and Himself had downloaded this book onto his Kindle a while back, and reported enthusiastically on it after he’d finished it. In fact, I think he went out and bought the rest of the series…

London, 1889. Victoria is Queen. Charles Darwin’s son is Prime Minister. And steam is the power that runs the world. At 17, Claire Trevelyan, daughter of Viscount St. Ives, was expected to do nothing more than pour an elegant cup of tea, sew a fine seam, and catch a rich husband. Unfortunately, Claire’s talents lie not in the ballroom, but in the chemistry lab, where things have a regrettable habit of blowing up.

ladyI’m not including the rest of the blurb on the grounds that it contains far too much of the story arc. But if you dip into the first couple of chapters and get the impression that this is a period romance with steampowered gismos lurking in the background, then grit your teeth and keep going… Of course, like me, you might have been completely snagged by Claire’s feisty personality since the first page. But if not, keep going – really. It’s worth it. Oh – and avoid the blurting blurb at all costs, or your pleasure will be significantly spoilt.

This incarnation of Victorian society has the upper classes divided into Bloods and Wits, where nobility whose lineage have entitled them to their lands and riches don’t mix socially with the Wits – those whose intellect and entrepreneurship have provided them with wealth, but not necessarily a position in the Best Society. Claire’s mother is a crushing snob, who refuses to have Peony Churchill to the house unless she is related to the correct branch of the family.

I skimmed some of the reviews on Amazon and was slightly taken aback to find so much critical head-shaking over terms like fall instead of autumn, accusing Adina for being sloppy in muddling her Victorian English with American English. Um… my reading of this book is that it is an alternate version of Victorian England – which is what steampunk does. I don’t think Adina has made a mistake – she several times refers to the Colonial Territories, meaning the Americas, which means that in her timeline they haven’t declared Independence from Britain. Therefore words and phrases from the Colonies would be far more likely to mix with UK English – she has the best ball gowns designed in America, for instance. Neither do I think Adina slipped up in having Prince Albert around when she sets her steampunk adventure – I think she has chosen to keep him alive in her world. However it would have been helpful if she’d actually flagged where she tinkered with historical fact in an appendix, as does C.J. Sansom in his alternate history Dominion.

So, having established that Adina is obeying the best conventions of steampunk, rather than being a sloppy writer – does she go on to produce a story sufficiently filled with the magnificent devices promised in the series title? Oh yes, she certainly does. I love the scene where Claire finds herself at the Great Exhibition, looking at some of the cutting edge technologies of the time and discussing whether electronick weapons will work. The other defining genre convention is pace – steampunk tends to bounce along with the throttle fully open, with all sorts of madcap OTT adventures along the way. Adina also provides these in spades – in fact the only grizzle I have is that the book ended far too soon, by dint of being only fifty-something thousand words long. But, as I picked it up on Kindle for less than a pound, it still provided me with excellent value – and a determination to get hold of the second book in the series.
9/10

Review of Elsewhens – Book 2 of The Touchstone series by Melanie Rawn

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This is the sequel to the fabulous Glass Thorns I recently reviewed here. Would it live up to the very high standard Rawn set in her first book of the series?

Touchstone, the magical theatre troupe, continues to build audiences and wherever they go and worldly success follows. But after anelsewhens apparent loss in the Trials, the four are chosen to travel from a kingdom populated with Wizards, Elves and Fae to the continent, where magic is forbidden and non-human races are met with suspicion.

As strains within the group threaten to fracture it, playwright Caydon is further troubled by his ‘elsewhens’ the uncontrolled moments when he is plunged into visions of the death of his closest friend, the troupe’s reckless and brilliant glister Mieka. Cade fears that his Fae gift will forever taint his friendships, while others fear that his increasing distance will destroy him.

If you have managed to get your hands on a copy of Elsewhens but haven’t got around to reading Glass Thorns – my firm advice is to put Elsewhens on one side until you’ve read Glass Thorns. This is a fairly densely written world, without any sort of ‘story so far’ prologue to help out readers who are reading this out of sequence. I’m assuming that if you have gone to the trouble of tracking down Elsewhens, you are a Fantasy fan that thoroughly enjoyed the first instalment of this wonderful world. It seems to be something of a Marmite series – readers seem to either love or dislike it. I loved it.

Now that Touchstone are busy establishing their reputations, this book explores some of the darker side of performing – the demons that regularly afflict those who are driven to display slices of their personality to entertain others. Though Rawn’s performers are magical beings, some of the impulses that drive them are all too human. And the troupe’s hard drinking, womanising and drug use is very familiar – anyone who knows actors or musicians will recognise aspects of their behaviour in Rawn’s performers in this original and fascinating Fantasy tale. Their post-show behaviour regularly slides into bursts of high-spirited pranks – the sort of high jinks that rock and roll groups have indulged in, when the adrenaline burst necessary for a performance doesn’t ease down quietly, but goes on buzzing long after the show is over…

Mieka, their mercurial glister, pulls out the emotion that Cade carefully weaves into the glass withies and gives his magical crafting colour and intensity that leaves audiences breathless and wanting more… But Cade is still tormented by the visions of various futures in which a drug-ravaged Mieka self-destructs – or Cade, twisted into a coldly aloof version of himself, rebuffs the emotionally needy Elf… And he desperately tries to make his own decisions to ensure some of the nightmare futures don’t come to pass – while keeping the other options to himself so that he doesn’t influence any of the others, especially Mieka.

If your taste runs to character-led stories where the author allows the world to develop through her protagonists’ hopes and fears… Where constant politicking goes on around the main characters, while they are oblivious, wrapped up in the latest performance… Where their drive to be the best they can be ignites creative fires they struggle to control… then this is a read I cannot recommend highly enough.

And as for the ending – well I didn’t see that coming. And it’s a long old wait for the third instalment. In the meantime, it’s wonderful to see one of the Fantasy greats back to her old form – welcome back Melanie!
10/10

Interview with Mark Anson, author of Acid Sky and Below Mercury

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Today I have asked Indie author Mark Anson to discuss his two science fiction techno-thrillers, his writing process and how he produces those fantastic diagrams that accompany his novels.

Thank you for agreeing to let me grill you, Mark. How long have you been writing and who are the writers you admire?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work! I started writing short stories while I was still at school, and the stories grew in size until I could tackle a full-length novel. As for writers I admire, for sheer quality of writing and storytelling it has to be Winston Graham (author of the Poldark novels, Marnie and many other works). His ability to immerse the reader in a totally believable world, with beautifully drawn characters and intertwining storylines, is outstanding. For science fiction, I have always admired Michael Crichton and his ability to extrapolate science fact into gripping thrillers – Timeline is a particular favourite of mine as it blends science fiction with an intensively researched historical adventure.

Are you an organic writer, or a planner? If you do plan, how much of the story arc and character development do you work out in advance. How closely do you stick to any plan?
I fall squarely into the ‘planner’ category – not that there’s anything wrong with the organic approach! I use a spreadsheet to map out in detail what happens in each chapter, what the characters’ motivations are, and to keep track of detailed points like time of day, and issues that need resolving later. I try to plan one book ahead of where I am actually writing in the series, so that I have a pretty good idea where the characters have come from and where they’re going. I didn’t use to take such a structured approach, but I ended up wasting a lot of material due to lack of planning and I’ve had to teach myself to work this way. I stick pretty closely to the plan but I do make changes if I think things don’t work. And that’s where continuity errors can creep in.

I’m interested to know what impact your fabulous drawings have on your creative process regarding the story. At what stage in your stories do you work out your spacecraft? Did you have your Mercury mines all drawn before you wrote the story – or do you work out your drawings alongside your storytelling?
I do all the drawings in advance of writing, and the level of detail reflects how much time the characters spend in the situation. So for the huge mine in Below Mercury, I did this in some detail because half the story is set there and it’s difficult to describe the complexities of mine workings without it, while for Acid Sky, all the action is set on a giant flying carrier, so there are several drawings of that. I don’t think the drawings are necessary to read and enjoy the stories, but they certainly help me to maintain a detailed and consistent background. They do change a bit as I write the story, if I feel something isn’t working.

How long did it take you to write the books?
I’m very slow – Acid Sky took two years. Below Mercury took considerably longer as it was my first full-length novel. I am working to improve.

You self-published Below Mercury – had you initially attempted to get it traditionally published, or did you immediately decide to go the self-publishing route?
I tried the traditional route first without success before deciding to go it alone. Having published two books now in both e-book and print, it’s much easier to see things from the publisher’s point of view and understand why the chances of getting a traditional publishing deal are so incredibly slim. I suspect that in the future, unknown authors will increasingly be expected to prove their work first through self-publishing on e-book platforms, before being considered by a traditional publisher.

Clare Foster is a very believable, sympathetically drawn protagonist – is she a complete product of your imagination, or have you based her on anyone you know?
Clare isn’t based on anyone in particular, but I have certainly drawn on character traits of people whom I have met and worked with. I wanted to create a strong, career-driven female character that readers could identify with, and who has a story behind her. And things don’t always go her way – her star is rising in Acid Sky, but when we see her again several years later in Below Mercury, things have gone very wrong for her and she is seeking to redeem herself.

I understand that you are currently writing the sequel to Below Mercury. Can you tell us a bit about it and when it will be available?
Yes. I have a sequel planned in detail for Below Mercury, set on a future Mars, which addresses the questions left outstanding, especially what happens to the bad guys after Matt and Clare escape from the mine on Mercury. I am likely, however, to write another story first which fits in between Acid Sky and Below Mercury, and tells the story of Clare Foster’s time in the elite Asteroid Interceptor squadron. It’s going to be set in space beyond Mars, and I hope very much to have this out at the end of 2015. But of course, plans may change…

Review of Indie EBOOK Acid Sky – prequel to Below Mercury by Mark Anson

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For those of you who have read and enjoyed Anson’s offering Below Mercury, – read my review here – this book goes back into pilot Clare Foster’s past and gives us a slice of her training, when she first visited the skies above Venus.

Langley plan 250214 150dpiVenus – second planet from the Sun. In the crushing depths of its atmosphere lies a hellish, dimly-lit world of baked rock and furnace-like temperatures, forever hidden beneath thick clouds of sulphuric acid. But high above the clouds, the sky is blue and clear, and a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers circle endlessly on the high-altitude winds, providing a welcome staging post for crews on long space voyages. For Clare Foster, a newly-promoted lieutenant in the US Astronautics Corps on her first tour of duty on board the carrier Langley, flying on Venus brings new challenges to be mastered. But the endless blue skies of Venus soon darken with an approaching menace, in which the terrifying fury of the planet will be unleashed…

If you enjoy your science fiction on the hard side, then Anson is your man. His world-building is a geek’s dream, with beautiful line drawings of the various craft he portrays in his story. As you can see from the examples I have included – which show up a treat on venusmy very basic Kindle – he has included an extra dimension to the backdrop. There is also a section at the back of the book with additional details about Venus, the acid sky and those amazing craft. However, I have read plenty of amazing futuristic worlds depicted by science fiction authors, who wouldn’t know narrative pace if they fell over it in a wormhole… Anson is one of the other sort – those who not only have an excellent grasp of all the techie toys, but nevertheless can also spin a great story and write convincing characters.

Which is just as well, because his protagonist is young Clare Foster and the nature of the storyline means that this could have gone into some really dodgy territory, with yet another young, good-looking female victimised. Dedicated, talented and extremely hard-working, nevertheless Clare is greener than a four-leaved shamrock when she finds herself on the huge carrier Langley, which is harvesting elements from the surrounding skies as well as providing a convenient stopover for traffic moving back and forth to Mercury.

acid skyShe falls foul of a fellow officer – and rather than just put up and shut up, as she is advised to do, she decides to mete out her own revenge. With startling consequences… The early stages of this book is full of Clare’s experiences as a pilot and the pace is not exactly leisurely, but it isn’t a foot-to-the-floor adrenaline rush, either. But what it does do, is make us really care about Clare and get to know her thoroughly before she is plunged into her adventure. As well as give us plenty of insights into just how everything works on this world, with all the checks and balances and safety regulations, we get the sense that those living and working in this hostile environment know it well and have more or less got it under control… Until it all goes wrong, of course.

It’s a very neat trick. I cannot recall reading a book where I minded so much about the technology and what happens to it. As for Anson, this is his second book and it shows. The pacing is more sure-footed and while he takes risks with the particular storyline he has chosen, I think his depiction of Clare has managed to avoid the accusation that he has set up his female protagonist as a sex victim in a lazy plot device. The situation she finds herself in is all too believable – and Anson’s handling of the whole incident is well done. I’m looking forward to reading Anson’s next book. His particular format of juxtaposing the impressive technical ingenuity alongside the frailty and inherent rule-breaking that goes on in any human community makes for riveting storytelling.
9/10

Review of The Islanders by Christopher Priest

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Christopher Priest’s work is always a challenge. He regularly pushes the envelope with his beautifully written prose, as in The Separation, which I reviewed here. And this offering is no exception. So would I enjoy this book more than I enjoyed The Separation?

islandersThe Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across the waters. The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.

Whether this book could be called a novel is a matter for debate – the overall narrative spine of The Islanders is a visitor’s guide to some of the islands within the Dream Archipelago with a series of short, factually concise guides to a range of islands. At the same time, we become increasingly aware that this task is doomed to failure. Because of temporal anomalies that are now routinely used by aircraft to shorten flights, it is very difficult to accurately map large sections of the Archipelago. It gets worse – even trying to standardise the names of these islands proves a challenge as there are frequently anything up to three alternatives names for each one. And at least one of the poorer, less attractive islands appears to have appropriated the name of one of its more prosperous, popular neighbours in the hope of attracting a section of their tourist trade.

Who has embarked on this project of writing a gazetteer? We are never told. At least we are on solid ground at the beginning of the book – the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston has written the Prologue – an oblique and rather qualified approval of the whole undertaking. However, one of the sections near the end of the book describes Chaster’s death – so how can he have read and approved of the manuscript sufficiently to have written the Prologue? Again, don’t expect Priest to provide any answers.

If the book had merely contained a series of tourist guide details about a bunch of non-existent islands, it would have joined my growing pile of DID NOT FINISH books on the grounds that Life is too short. But Priest is a fine writer – and mixed in amongst the clipped, impersonal island descriptions are a number of vivid characters, some amusing, some dark and some plain sad. A handful of these characters, including Chaster, constantly keep appearing and reappearing, building up a drifting, insubstantial plot that shifts as soon as you start to rely on it as the thread that will pull this book into a coherent whole. Even the chronology jumps around – nothing is certain.

So… did I enjoy The Islanders? Oh yes. Priest’s evocation of a vast, shifting population of islands that are resistant to any firm cataloguing is a temptingly attractive backdrop to his flickers of characterisation and drama. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.
10/10

Review of Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

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trainsI thoroughly enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, so scooped up this offering as soon as I saw it on the shelves – would I also enjoy this book?

Imagine you are in a train. Think about all the other people on the train with you, what their lives are or have been, the different experiences you’ve all had. But there is one thing that you undoubtedly all share: you have all been in love at one time or another. In this story, four strangers share their different experiences of love…

That’s as much of the very chatty blurb I’m prepared to share, as I’m allergic to spoilers. So this is an episodic novel, with these strangers sharing their very personal stories – or in one person’s case, not sharing their story… But for me, the slice of the book that has lodged in my head was the Prologue – in fact I haven’t been able to get this extract out of my head:

Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is: even if we idealise it, celebrate it in poetry; sentimentalise it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or the diseases of childhood; it is predictable as the losing of milk teeth, or the breaking of a boy’s voice. It may visit us at any time; in our youth but also when we are much older and believe we are beyond its reach; but we are not. It has been described as a toothache, a madness, a divine intoxication – metaphors that reflect the disturbing effect it has on our lives. It may bring surprise, joy, despair and occasionally perfect happiness.
p. 7, Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon Books, 2012)

I think the fact that these stories are told on the journey between Edinburgh and London is significant – many of us have been on a train journey where we have somehow struck up a conversation with those around us. While McCall Smith is often described as a ‘cosy and heart-warming’ writer, don’t go away with the impression that he is remotely interested in giving us the sentimental Valentine’s hearts and teddy bears version of love. Even the happiest story is shadowed by the fact that both people involved are dead and gone, with their life’s work also obliterated and their tale of love is being narrated by their daughter.

As ever, given that McCall Smith is the author, this isn’t a huge volume with only 191 pages of well-spaced prose. But what it lacks in physical heft, it makes up in the perfect pacing, interesting characterisation and nuanced storytelling that leaves us in no doubt that love is a chancy business. And maybe the reason why we keep revisiting romance over and over in our fiction, is because when loves strikes us, it so often isn’t the happily ever after we are promised in all the fairy stories. If you want a far more realistic, clear-eyed version then track down this book – I personally think it should be required reading for all idealistic pre-teen and teenage girls glutted on a diet of Disney and Hollywood romcoms.
10/10

Review of A Grave Talent – Book 1 of the Kate Martinelli Mysteries by Laurie R. King

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Back in January, I discovered King’s interesting take on the Sherlock Holmes franchaise and reviewed it here. But Himself, who was also very impressed with King’s writing, went looking for her other crime series and thrust this offering into my hands, promising that I’d love it.

graveKate Martinelli, a newly promoted female Homicide detective with a secret to conceal, and Alonzo Hawkin, a world-weary cop trying to make a new life for himself in San Francisco are thrown together to solve a particularly ugly crime. Three young girls are strangled. All children are similar in appearance and all are found near a rural colony, home to a variety of dropouts and eccentric characters. Amongst them is one woman, the enigmatic artist Vaun, who is hiding the terrible truth about her past and her real identity. As they get nearer the solution, Martinelli and Hawkin realise there is a coldly calculating mind at work which they must outmanoeuvre if they are to prevent further killing.

That’s the blurb, more or less. This book was initially published in 1991, and won the 1993 Edgar Award for the best first crime novel of the year. Which should give you an indication that it’s a good ‘un – which it certainly is.

King’s cool, understated prose, pin-sharp characterisation and steadily rising tension put me in mind of P.D. James and Ruth Rendall – and I don’t generally sling those kinds of comparisons around. I have to say that when I initially realised that the crimes they were investigating were the serial deaths of small girls, my heart sank. I read largely for pleasurable escapism, so with young children in the family, I generally don’t want to read about murders in this age group. I gritted my teeth, waiting for the heart-wrenching details from the post mortem… the anguish of the parents… the detectives to go into emotional meltdown over the whole business, taking us with them… And was relieved that there was none of that sloshing around in this novel. While at no time treating the deaths as anything other than wicked, terrible waste of young lives, King has refrained from putting us through the wringer, focusing instead on first the main suspect and then the perpetrator.

If that sounds like the book is lacking in tension – it isn’t. King has an inbuilt instinct for providing sufficient conflict necessary to pull us into her world, while refraining from going OTT. If only the screenwriters of popular TV crime programmes would follow her example, I would have enjoyed the first episode of the latest NCIS series…

But in this book, King isn’t just giving us a gripping murder hunt with a pair of believably complex detectives – she is laying the groundwork for a crime detective series, featuring her main protagonist, Kate Martinelli. So do we care sufficiently for this female detective to want to hunt down other books featuring her? Oh absolutely – in fact the sequel is waiting on the pile beside my bed. And I have a feeling that it may mysteriously jump the queue and be read ahead of the strict order I usually implement.

But don’t take my word for it – give yourself a treat and curl up in front of the fire with A Grave Talent, before the Spring garden yanks you outside.
9/10

Review of Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

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oddWell, you won’t find a book more aptly named. Odd by name and odd by nature… Twenty-year-old Odd Thomas takes pride in his work as a fry cook. His fame has spread, bringing strangers to the restaurant in Pico Mundo. Odd cannot say what it is that disturbs him about this particular stranger, but his sixth sense is alert… This is a man with an appetite for operatic terror. The violence he craves is of the extreme variety: multiple untimely deaths spiced with protracted horror. Tomorrow.

Odd’s fears are first for Stormy Llewellyn, his one true love. Stormy believes that our passage through this world is intended to toughen us for the next life – that the many terrors we know here are an inoculation against worse in the world to come. But Odd Thomas knows more than Stormy about this world. Many people in Pico Mundo think he is some sort of psychic, perhaps a clairvoyant, a seer, something. None but a handful know that he sees the restless dead, those with unfinished business and sometimes, plenty of post-mortem rage.

Now, I generally don’t do too much Horror – I dream far too vividly to be able to cope with anything liberally gore-drenched. But this offering was vetted by Himself, who assured me that it was both worth reading and reasonably spatterless and I thoroughly enjoyed this accomplished, well-written book. There is a touch of Gothic otherness in a small-town American setting that had me feeling fiercely protective of the likes of Stormy Llewellyn, Odd’s girlfriend, Police Chief Porter, Mrs Sanchez and Little Ozzie – characters who bounce off the page with their eccentricity and niceness. Writing nice without descending into sentimentality takes skill, which Koontz amply demonstrates in this slow-burn thriller than had me reading far too late into the night/early morning, given I had a poorly grandson to tend.

I enjoyed the fact that Odd’s facility for encountering ghosts has kept him in his hometown, away from busy city streets where sudden deaths are far more frequent, so that he appears to be under-achieving. Whereas in actual fact, he strives to be the best breakfast cook he can be – while keeping track of the creepy black shadows that gather when something terrible is about to happen and trying to avert the impending catastrophe.

Yes, I know it’s not staggeringly original – but Koontz’s particular handling of this plot device is slick and accomplished. I love Odd’s first person narration – that as a bookish, nerdy kid, he is rather wordy. That his terrible upbringing has left him… odd – with a strange innocence alongside his otherworldly gifts and a knack for making friends. It is a refreshing change when so many young protagonists spend their time angst-ridden over their own emotions and feelings, to encounter a character who rarely will address his own pain – turning his emotions into trying to keep everyone he cares about safe. Which brings its own terrible urgency, as a terrible evil continues to circle the heartbreakingly vulnerable community of Pico Mundo.

If, like me, you’re a tad allergic to horror that describes dead bodies in loving detail, but appreciate a tension-filled, paranormal thriller of above average quality, then track down this 2004 offering. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10