The Defence by Steve Cavanagh

The Defence | Steve Cavanagh | 2016 | Orion | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Defence by Steve CavanaghEddie Flynn, once a hustler and then a lawyer, swore a year ago that he would never enter a courtroom again. But when local Russian mafia leader Olek Volchek straps a bomb round Eddie’s chest and kidnaps his ten-year-old daughter, Eddie is forced to re-evaluate his choices. Volchek is on trial, thanks to one of his men turning informant, becoming Witness X in the process. Eddie is given two days to have Volchek’s case thrown out of court. To be fair, Eddie isn’t Volchek’s first choice but the first lawyer he tried failed the test and now his severed head is being used as further leverage to get Eddie to act more sensibly and do what he’s told. And so Eddie and his client enter the courtroom, surrounded by mafia gang members and a courtroom of police and FBI, not all of whom can be trusted. Actually, Eddie would be unwise to trust a soul.

Eddie, for all his faults, was a fine lawyer and fortunately, despite the year’s absence, it’s like riding a bicycle and his skill is quick to return, especially his talent for cross-examination. But all the time Eddie is focused on one thing and one thing only – his daughter Amy. Volchek might be the one holding the detonator but Eddie is a man with everything to fight for. It soon becomes clear that there is an awful lot more going on than Eddie and even Volchek could have predicted. If anyone survives the fallout as the deadline arrives it’ll be a miracle.

The Defence is one of the most exhilarating reads I’ve had in quite a while. The tension is thrown at us from the very first page and it never lets up as the clock ticks and the deadline threatens. Eddie is an immensely likeable character who always has something to say – often with his tongue in his cheek – and the fact that the story is told in his own words ups the intensity while bringing us closer and closer to a man who will do anything, absolutely anything, to save his daughter. And while this might be a courtroom drama, a fair amount of the action takes place outside it, elsewhere in the building during breaks. Eddie never gets any rest and it’s a fair bet that neither does the reader.

The brilliantly clever, hugely entertaining and complex story is presented in vivid colour – it really does have the feel of a movie to me. This is an action thriller and the urgent prose fits. Its structure is remarkable and quite a feat. Steve Cavanagh controls his characters perfectly. I loved the combination of courtroom drama and thriller, of wit and action. It might be an exhausting read but it’s a huge amount of fun, certainly far more fun than I would ever have expected from a novel set in a courtroom. I love it when a book defies all expectations.

A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel

A Fever of the Blood | Oscar de Muriel | 2016 | Michael Joseph | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de MurielOn New Year’s Day 1889, a patient escapes from a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh, leaving a nurse brutally murdered, gripped by a poison so severe that her contortions snapped her spine. The manhunt is given to local Detective Adolphus ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Inspector Ian Frey, who has been banished to Scotland from London and sees little hope of return. Frey does what he can to get on with McGray, a detective of undoubted skill, but Nine-Nails is not an easy man to befriend. There’s a rage in him and a good part of the reason for that lies in this very asylum. A young female patient was kept in the room next to the one occupied by the man who escaped. Just before he fled, his whispered conversation with the woman was overheard. Nothing extraordinary in itself except the young woman is never known to speak and, even more than that, she is McGray’s sister and the fact that he is known as Nine-Nails and not Ten has rather a lot to do with this silent patient.

So begins a cat and mouse chase across Scotland and the north of England during one of the worst winters in living history. Tormented by blizzards and false clues, McGray and Frey follow a trail of blood in pursuit of the mysterious patient that both know to be a nobleman, consigned secretly to a madhouse by order of his bitter mother and to the horror of his daughter. Here is a man with something to prove and he will let nothing stand in his way, least of all the people that our detectives find slain or vanished. McGray believes that his sister holds the clue but getting her to speak again seems impossible. Rarely has McGray felt so desperate. Frey has his work cut out to hold the investigation together while following McGray to the very fringes of superstition and madness on Pendle Hill, the home of witches.

Having not read Oscar de Muriel’s first novel, The Strings of Murder, A Fever of the Blood came as a fabulous surprise. The story is deliciously sinister and creepy, the atmosphere is thick and heady with Victorian superstition and melodrama, and its characters are second to none. I immediately liked McGray and Frey very much and the fact that they almost never see eye to eye – and are not averse to throwing punches at one another – makes for not only a thoroughly entertaining mystery but also an involving one. These two detectives, both of whom carry a lot of baggage, couldn’t be more different from one another, as seen for example in something as simple as language. The hostility between the two only seldom lifts but we get an inkling of what Frey feels about his partner from his narrative which forms the larger part of the novel. Frey is our eyes and ears but it’s McGray, a rough diamond with quite a turn of phrase, that I warmed to the most.

A Fever of the Blood has just the right amount of melodrama and witchery. The superstition is counteracted by a detective’s cynicism but there’s still enough to chill, particularly when the action takes us up into the snow-blasted moors and hills. The settings, both town and country, are wonderfully drawn and they are populated by a host of fascinating and strange characters.

McGray and Frey are marvellous creations and Oscar de Muriel has put them within a story that’s worthy of them. I lapped it up, was constantly surprised by its twists and turns, and I am so looking forward to meeting the two of them again. I bought The Strings of Murder this week and I can’t wait to read it.

Gate of the Dead by David Gilman – Review and interview with the author

Gate of the Dead | David Gilman | 2016 | Head of Zeus | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

This week sees the publication of Gate of the Dead, the third book in David Gilman’s fantastically exciting and brutal Master of War series that brings the Hundred Years War to life through the story of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a powerful knight in his own right. I’m delighted to present below an interview with David Gilman but, before that, here is a review.

Gate of the Dead by David GilmanIt is 1358 and Sir Thomas Blackstone is banished from England. With his loyal men beside him, Thomas is a mercenary in Tuscany, caught up in the violence between cities that is tearing Italy apart. His job is to protect Lucca and its surroundings from the rapacious forces of Milan. And what Thomas sees and experiences in this lawless country is appalling. A chance to escape the bloodshed comes in the shape of a mortally wounded messenger who carries a message from the King of England’s mother, Queen Isabella. Thomas is recalled back to England to take part in a tournament alongside the Black Prince, a man Thomas assumed could no longer stand the sight of him. But an invitation from the Queen is not lightly ignored.

Of course, this is the mid 14th century and the rest of post-plague Europe is as lawless and brutalised as Italy and Thomas’s journey north is not an easy one. And Thomas is a man who makes enemies and his latest is in pursuit. So begins a series of bloody adventures that take Thomas and his men back to England and an uncertain welcome, before Thomas is returned to the continent and thrown into the heart of a peasants’ revolt in France that almost defies belief in its savagery and bloodlust. But Thomas is on the trail of his wife Christiana and their family and there is nothing he won’t endure to protect them. It’s just as well because Thomas will be tested to his very limit.

David Gilman, again, achieves wonders with his recreation of the Hundred Years War. But a strong part of its appeal has been watching Thomas Blackstone grow from the young stonemason archer who fought at Crécy. He’s a man who inspires loyalty and over the books I’ve grown attached to a fair few of his band of men – their banter provides welcome light relief, for us and for Thomas. Unfortunately, this being a novel of war, the headcount suffers. Fact and fiction are well mixed, with Thomas’s personal experiences of conflict, survival and love set against the backdrop of war between kings, petty nobles and armies.

I do like the way Gilman treats the women in his novels. They have strong roles and a great deal of influence, especially Christiana, while having to endure enormous stress. It’s difficult to know who to worry for most in Gate of the Dead – Thomas or Christiana. In Gate of the Dead, I was particularly fascinated by its depiction of life in medieval Lucca in Tuscany. This is a city I visit regularly and it’s brought to life here in a way I haven’t imagined before.

All of the Master of War novels are bloody and uncompromising in their portrayal of war and violence and Gate of the Dead is no exception. This is, though, the darkest of the novels. It is episodic in structure as Thomas moves around Europe from one crisis to another but the tension builds throughout, leading to a shocking climax that I doubt I’ll forget.

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death

Congratulations on Gate of the Dead – another fine book in this wonderful series, The Master of War. What inspired you to write about the Hundred Years War?

Thanks, Kate. Gate of the Dead, like the other books in the series, feels very much alive to me. Thomas Blackstone and the men who serve with him have developed a life of their own and become such strong characters. Ideas for stories tend not to leap out of the imagination but tend to sneak up and take you by surprise. I saw a painting of a Englishman in the Duomo in Florence. He was dressed in his finery on a wonderful war horse. It turned out to be John Hawkwood who served Italy as a condottieri – a soldier of fortune. After the great battles in 14th century France when King Edward III defeated the French in two great decisive battles, many soldiers were paid off (if they were paid at all) and became soldiers for hire. The Italian city states particularly prized the English and Welsh because of their fighting skills. The question that would not go away was how did this Englishman rise to such prominence? And who exactly was my character going to be?

Gate of the Dead is set during the mid-14th century, one of the bleakest episodes in the last thousand years! What is the appeal of writing about this time – and would you have liked to have been alive then to see it for yourself?!

The medieval period is often considered nothing more than sheer brutality. But that’s how wars were fought in those times. Close quarter fighting of the most vicious kind meant that for any one man to stand out he had to be stronger and more courageous than most. A knight’s honour was closely linked to his fighting ability on the battlefield. King Edward III valued his fighting men and he rewarded commoners as well as noblemen and knights. It was a time of enormous conflict and Edward was as courageous as the men he led. And, of course, Edward’s greatest weapon in his arsenal of outstanding knights and noblemen was the English and Welsh bowmen. The breadth of history, personal, political and social, gave me a vast field of research and interest to write about.

GILMAN_Master of War_PBWhere did the inspiration for the character of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a knight, come from?

Starting the series with a man from a humble background meant that he was skilled in the art of survival on a day-to-day basis. Thomas Blackstone had physical strength and was imbued with sufficient compassion and duty to care for his younger brother, so when this village boy was thrown into a terrifying war I already had characteristics that would cause him conflict. A nobleman’s and knight’s chivalric code embraced good manners and an idealism that was only applied to those of equal or more senior rank, so creating a situation where a common man from the ranks of archers was thrust into a higher social order meant I could develop his character with more depth.

How many books do you envisage the series having? Do you know how the series will end or does it develop as you write it?

Gate of the Dead is the third book in the series and Thomas Blackstone will have his fourth outing in 2017, and there’s a fifth book planned for 2018. As a character he can have a long life and there are enough elements already laid into the books to be embellished and developed further. Writing these books is an adventure. When I sit down to start the new story I have no idea where it will take me or the characters who inhabit my life on a daily basis. My study can get a bit crowded at times. Historical events often trigger the time and place where he is placed.

How difficult is it to mix history with fiction?

It has its challenges. No author can change historical events but characters can operate within the historical context of where they’re placed. The big events – the great battles, the kings and queens, those elements can’t be messed about with too much, but, as an example, who’s to say how such important characters in history might, or might not, have reacted in certain situations. I do a lot of cross –referencing in my research to try and get the facts as correct as possible, but even academics and historians are not always in agreement. I think that provided the fiction is well grounded in time and place there can be some flexibility. It’s fiction.

Defiant unto Death by David GilmanYour novels also feature strong women, something I don’t take for granted in historical fiction. How important is it to you to give women representation in your books?

Women often played a subservient role in medieval times, but as always, there were exceptions. I remember coming across a French noblewoman by the name of Blanche de Harcourt when I started writing the Master of War series. I scribbled her name on the back of envelope – which I still have because she was part of the genesis for Thomas Blackstone. At first I could find out very little about her but then, slowly but surely, she emerged. A noblewoman in her own right, independent of her husband, she ended up creating her own army of mercenaries. There were times in that period of history where women were forced to take on the mantle of responsibility for their families – particularly when their husbands and sons were killed in war. They were hardy, resilient women and I have always wanted strong female characters in my books. It’s not always easy to realistically bring female characters into the story mix, given that it was such a male-dominated era – but I hope that so far my female characters have developed satisfactorily into the fabric of the stories. Blackstone’s wife Christiana, is an example. She’s a strong-minded, but vulnerable woman who faces challenging events that I believe female readers can identify with even through modern eyes.

Is there another period of history that appeals to you to write about?

So many. My ideas are stacked up like ghost planes over Heathrow. World War II is always a great pull, and for some time I’ve had a storyline sketched out. Elements of the 1920/30s and emigration to North America also interest me and I have a female character lined up as the protagonist. It’s a tough story to tell and is firmly based on facts and the personal recollections of those involved. I also have a series in mind which has an Anglo-Saxon character in post-Norman invasion times, who moves on to take part in another great empire’s conflict. I have recently completed a standalone novel – The Last Horseman – written in between my Master of War series. It is set in 1899, begins in Dublin, Ireland and follows a character, an older man, who is embroiled in the Irish politics of the time. He journeys to South Africa at the time of the Anglo-Boer war. The “Last Horseman” will be published mid-2016. Other ideas aside, I will be staying with Thomas Blackstone and the 14th century for a while yet. He has a long journey ahead of him.

Which authors have inspired you to write?

This is always a difficult question to answer. So many authors, so many books, but there’s also another element involved. When I was young I not only read everything I could lay my hands on but also listened to a lot of radio drama. So the ‘reading eye’ and the ‘listening ear’ both stimulated my imagination and inspired the storyteller within me. It’s a real mixed bag of authors. Early works I remember are those by Norman Mailer, Alistair Maclean, Neville Shute, Wilbur Smith, Robert Ruark, William Wharton, Saul Bellow, James Clavell, Helen Dunmore, Edith Pargeter, Josephine Tey, … the list goes on because there’s something in every novel that piques my interest and triggers my own imagination. As the years progress my reading has become even more diverse. Every book offers something special. Have just finished Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I am currently reading Sebastian Faulkes’ Where my heart used to beat.

What’s your favourite novel of 2015?

Terrible question. Pitting one author against another is like comparing your best friends. I probably need more time to think about the answer. As an example, I am (still) enjoying the Richard Burton diaries but was gripped by Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. (I don’t always read the most currently published novels.)

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Behind Closed Doors | B.A. Paris | 2016 | MIRA | 286p | Review copy | Buy the book

Behind Closed Doors by BA ParisJack and Grace appear to have it all – a happy marriage, a beautiful house (designed to fulfil every one of Grace’s requirements for a dream home), wealth, exotic holidays, good looks and charm. The story of how they fell in love is perfectly romantic, with Jack sweeping not only Grace off her feet but also her sister Millie, a loveable young girl with Down’s Syndrome. For the first time, Grace met someone who would love Millie and do more than that. He would welcome her into their home when she finally finishes boarding school. When fiends and neighbours pop round for dinner, they are delighted, with the meal (Grace is quite a cook) and with this enviably loving couple. All but one. This is the first time that Esther has met Grace and she can’t help looking at her very closely because, after all, if something appears too good to be true, often it is.

Behind Closed Doors is told entirely in Grace’s words, with the present day mixed with her recollections of the past, beginning with the day that she met Jack, this handsome man with George Clooney looks, while she was dancing in the park with her sister. The novel opens with a dinner party, during which Grace is nervous, keen that everything should go well, that her souffles will impress. This is entirely understandable but as the pages pass and Grace feels more comfortable in confiding in us, the reader, we begin to learn what really goes on behind the closed doors of this perfect home and marriage.

This is B.A. Paris’s first novel and it is a remarkable achievement – Behind Closed Doors is one of the most intense and disturbing novels I have read in a long time. It’s not always easy to read. The subject matter is brutal and deeply worrying. And the way in which Grace lays all this bare is chillingly cold and sharp. The account is full of little details which reveal the true horror of her existence, little moments and incidents which by themselves would seem unimportant but which combined build up to create a monster.

Behind Closed Doors is a very fast, very powerful and very dark novel. It put me right outside my comfort zone but its shocks and twists held me spellbound, as did the figures of Grace and Millie, and I was desperate to see how it would finish. I was not disappointed. B.A. Paris is to be congratulated.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Behind Closed Doors on 11 February. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Behind Closed Doors Blog tour banner

Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh

Burning Midnight | Will McIntosh | 2016 | Delacorte Press/Macmillan | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh UKIn the near future life is very different for some. Spheres of all colours have been found scattered across the planet and each has the power to do something for the person who finds it – or most likely buys it – and holds it to their temple. Some might enable the user to sing, or to become beautiful, taller, shorter, wiser, faster, stronger. Each colour of sphere has a difference value and, the more valuable and useful they are, the more the rich will seek them out. Alex Holliday is such a collector. He will pay millions to buy the best of the spheres, controlling the market, using many on himself. A man like that is hard to fight. The divide between rich and poor has never been greater.

David Sullivan knows all about Holliday. Seventeen-year-old resourceful Sully is a hunter, selling spheres at a bargain price on a market stall, and he once thought all his dreams were about to come true when Holliday made him a millionaire in return for a peerless Cherry Red. All of Sully’s many money worries, and those of his mother, disappeared in an instant. But Sully’s dreams were dashed when Holliday found out what the Cherry Red did and tore up the cheque. As Holliday continues to blight his life, Sully wants vengeance. It seems that he might have a chance when he meets Hunter, a girl with a wildness about her who knows far more about poverty and deprivation that Sully ever can. She is also a far better hunter of spheres. Both find it difficult to trust the other but together they might just find something unusual. And it’s not too long before they find a sphere no one has seen before – a large gold sphere of unknown power and it is worth millions. If only Sully and Hunter can stay alive long enough to reap the reward.

I am a huge fan of Will McIntosh, having loved his adult SF thrillers Love Minus Eighty and the outstanding Defenders, which was one of my top books of 2014. Burning Midnight is Will’s first Young Adult novel and I could not have been keener to read it.

Burning Midnight, like Will McIntosh’s other novels, has a fantastic premise and a plot that lives up to it. The spheres are a wonderful idea and are used to reveal the very best and worst of this near-future society. The action is full on from the beginning and moved along by some appealing young characters – brave and troubled – Sully and Hunter. While Sully is the main character and the principal hero, I would argue, though, that Hunter is the star of the novel. I really enjoyed getting to know her and her world on the fringes of society, her hours spent hiding and searching in all of its darkest corners. She’s a great character and Sully has his hands full in competing with her for our attention.

The spheres themselves are fascinating and I couldn’t wait to find out more about them and where they’re from and what they’re for. The answers are slow to come but when they do, it’s a gobsmacking moment. You can almost feel the Earth standing still as the penny drops. The novel, especially its thrilling second half, thoroughly entertains with the thrill of a quest for a beautiful prize of unknown origin and power. Halliday, or big business, or those who have had their rarified lives made even more glorious thanks to the gifts of the spheres, make for worthy enemies. The chase is on. The fact that nobody seems to know where it will end up adds another edge.

Burning Midnight is very entertaining with a great premise and I think that, while it has an appeal for all ages, younger teens in particular will love it.

Other reviews
Love Minus Eighty

The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, Jr

The Devil in the Valley | Castle Freeman, Jr | 2016 | Duckworth | 191p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, JrLangdon Taft has a beautiful home in rural Vermont. His life is calm, peaceful and solitary. But he’s reached an age when he’s not too sure what to do with the years remaining. Without realising quite why he does it, as he sits in his chair, thinking and drinking, he conjures up the devil – or, to be more precise, Mr Dangerfield, the devil’s account man. Langdon Taft would seem to be the last person you’d expect to make a deal with the devil but this is exactly what he does. This modern day Faustus sells his soul to the polite, urbane, reasonable devil sitting beside him. But unlike Dr Faustus who bargained for years of indulgence and power before the demons dragged him away, Langdon is given just a few months. A summer. Nothing more.

The Devil in the Valley is not quite what I was expecting, largely because Langdon Taft is no Dr Faustus. Castle Freeman cleverly shifts our preconceptions about this age-old tale. Taft isn’t evil, on the contrary. Langdon Taft is a man who sees himself as having been given the power to do good for those who live in his valley, and that is just what he does. Those he helps might thank God or Christ for their fortune (much to Mr Dangerfield’s displeasure), but Langdon knows differently.

The novel tells the story of Langdon and the people he helps or punishes, mixed with chapters in which Langdon’s great friend Eli discusses Taft with a remarkable old lady in a hospice who seems to be related to almost everyone in the valley. The result is an elegantly written, quirky supernatural tale which is both delightful to read – there is some light gentle humour here – and satisfying as we see the triumph of good. The relationship between Mr Dangerfield and Langdon is an amusing one and Dangerfield is quite a character, but Langdon himself remains something of an enigma to us, just as he is to everyone else.

The Devil in the Valley is a short novel, at just under 200 pages. It did take me a chapter or two to get into it – I think mostly because I had Marlowe’s Faustus prominent in my mind – but once I settled down with it on this dark, windy, wet day, the novel’s atmospheric storytelling proved such a comfort as it dug into the lives, made so significant and intriguing, of this small community in Vermont.

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Rush Oh! | Shirley Barrett | 2016 | Virago | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rush Oh! by Shirley BarrettIt is 1908 in a small coastal settlement outside Eden in New South Wales, Australia. A crew of whalers is led by ‘Fearless’ Davidson but success or failure is not down to the team alone. Their hunt is aided by a pod of killer whales, led by Old Tom, who, if one were to think about whales in such a way (and I can’t help it), is proud, strong, mischievous and dominant. It is Tom who announces the arrival of a large whale in the cove by breaching, smashing his body down onto the waves, calling the whalers to their ridiculously small, vulnerable boats. ‘Rush oh!’ the men call as they run to their oars. But 1908 is not a good year for the whalers. After a century of hunting, the whales are seeing fit to avoid the cove. The whalers are barely subsisting. Their reliance on the killer whales is more urgent than ever.

Mary Davidson is Fearless Davidson’s eldest daughter and, in the absence of their long-dead mother, her role is to care for her brothers and sisters while catering for the whalers. As the poor season continues, cooking something from nothing becomes increasingly hard. Mary isn’t particularly close to her siblings – her beautiful sister Louisa’s life seems relatively charmed by comparison while the oldest brother Harry has his own battles to prove aboard the second whaling boat. And so Mary looks for comfort where she can. She finds it in a new whaler, John Beck, a mysterious man who was once, he says, a Methodist minister and who has retained a way with words. Mary also finds comfort in the world around her, both people and animals, and it’s her record of these as well as her life in this remote settlement so dependent on the bounty of the sea that forms the warm, rich heart of Rush Oh!.

Mary Davidson is a wonderful, humorous narrator and it is her charm and resilience that makes Rush Oh such a captivating read. She doesn’t just describe her family and the men aboard the boats, Mary also brings to life the animals with whom they share their lives in this corner of Australia, including a rather tetchy grey kangaroo, a pair of horrendous mating birds and, best of all, their horse that won’t go anywhere without its cow best friend. And when that cow needs an umbrella held over its head, that makes for an awkward expedition. It’s all so beautifully written and the pleasure I derived from it reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s novels, which I adore. Supporting the comparison are the fabulous little drawings which can be found scattered throughout.

I almost didn’t read Rush Oh! because of its whaling theme. But then I remembered that Moby Dick is one of my very favourite novels and realised that this was not a good reason not to read it. It’s a book that richly evokes another time and place and Mary’s handling of the hunts is sensitively done, especially once she’s seen a hunt with her own eyes. There is a strong sense of empathy with the whales, and not just with the extraordinary pod of killer whales that has formed a mutually useful relationship with the whalers and yet they always have a menace about them. The descriptions of the hunts are bloody – and lethal for men and whale – and in every one I was on the side of the whale. I sense that some people in the novel felt the same way. The whales exert a powerful presence, not least because the settlement needs them for its very survival.

Rush Oh! is thoroughly enjoyable. It made me laugh out loud repeatedly. It is a light read – it could have been much, much darker and its ending could have been more deeply explored, as could Mary’s romance. But Rush Oh! is not that kind of novel. Instead it interprets (and alters) this true story with a strong and generous empathy for its people, history and environment. Mary is a delightful companion. There’s a sadness about her, especially when her memories lead her in directions she’d prefer to avoid, but she is such a fine observer of people and nature and she (or Shirley Barrett) conveys it through the most enchanting words and pictures.