The Cutting Place by Jane Casey

HarperCollins | 2020 (16 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cutting PlaceWhen a severed hand is pulled out of the Thames, a case begins for DS Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent that will strike at the heart of London’s establishment. Further remains are discovered and they’re identified as young journalist Paige Hargreaves. Paige had been working on a story involving the Chiron Club, a private society for some of the richest men in London, men who are so privileged that they need something extra in their lives, something criminal and very dark indeed. This is a world in which its members all have secrets and are prepared to lie, even kill, to protect their own and Maeve and Josh know that they are going to have to solve this the hard way, at great risk to themselves, as the net around them begins to close.

The Cutting Place is the eighth novel in Jane Casey’s superb Kerrigan and Derwent series and I think it represents a landmark book in a series that has excelled from the beginning. You could read it on its own quite easily and enjoy it for the superb crime thriller it is but, if you’ve been a fan, like me, of these two detectives for quite some time, then this book will make your jaw drop. And I don’t say that lightly because that sort of thing is often claimed for a book and it doesn’t always deliver, leading to disappointment. But there’s none of that here. I love Maeve and Josh. I love their unusual relationship, which is often not easy, it’s certainly complicated, and it can be agonising. I love their personalities. Both can be frustrating and irritating but Maeve in particular is as tough as nails and yet as vulnerable as one could be. Josh knows this. His protection of her is intense. Their relationship is platonic, which might surprise some of their colleagues, but it’s certainly very real.

In The Cutting Place, the stunning mystery shares centre stage with events in the lives of both Maeve and Josh as things happen that make them both change their attitude to what they see around them. It makes things more tetchy, more difficult and heartrending. And then something happens that knocks the ground out from under our feet and we want to hold these two very real people close, especially one of them. I’m not going to talk here about any of that as you need to go into it on your own. These are dark issues and Jane Casey, the most fantastic of writers, deals with it beautifully and with such heart.

With no doubt at all, and like others have said, The Cutting Place is the best in a series that is very fine indeed. This is an extraordinary achievement! To better something that is nigh on perfect in itself. The writing is beautiful, the tension is tight, the characters are fascinating and complex. We’re taken into some difficult places and we see some of the worst and best of behaviour. It’s gripping throughout and utterly engrossing. If you haven’t read this series before, do give it a go. Maeve and Josh are people you will want in your literary lives. The crime shelf is a crowded place but The Cutting Place most definitely stands out.

Other reviews
After the Fire
Let the Dead Speak
Cruel Acts

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

March 2020 – looking back and looking ahead

WELL! What a difference a month makes and, as I write this in Lockdown, it’s hard to imagine a more profound change. I hope you and your families are all well, safe and managing as we adjust to the New Reality. This has impacted on my reading and I suspect that I’m not alone in this. It’s also affected my work on The Project. It’s just been too hard to focus, especially as my energy and computer time has been absorbed by adapting to working from home, with all of the challenges that entails. But I know I’m very fortunate in that I can do that. Many can’t. And to those who continue to work on the Front Line for the benefit of us all, I raise a glass (imagine suitable emoji at this point).

Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L PowellBut the good news is that I’ve started to pick up my Project again and I’m continuing the massive task of typing it up, while carrying out a second edit. I’ve just realised that I may have to make some changes because some of it is set in 2021 and that 2021 is now not the same as it was when I began. Fortunately most of it is set in the past. And the other good news is that my reading has picked up again and I’m now finding a great deal of comfort and company in it, particularly in historical fiction and science fiction. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to read Gritty Fiction again. It could be quite a while. But I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back to enjoying crime fiction again soon. I decided to reduce my GoodReads Reading Challenge target by 25 to 125 books. Better to be realistic than continually fall short of my target.

So what have I read this month? The answer is not a lot and a few of them weren’t very successful reads. The Mirror and the Light was one of the books I was looking forward to the most this year and its 900 pages took up much of the first week of March. Sadly, although the writing is stunning and there were some fabulous sections, I found it far too long, with too much of its narrative reporting on events rather than witnessing them. I realised once I was done, that there was one thing very much missing from this final volume which brought the previous two to glorious life – Anne Boleyn. What might have been a factor was that I was quite ill with ‘flu’ at the start of March and this made it very difficult for me to read. I then read a few thrillers for light relief but, unfortunately, The Bug had struck by then and I couldn’t focus on them: Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: God of War, The Warsaw Protocol and The Holdout.

Strangers by CL TaylorA psychological thriller that I really did enjoy was Strangers by C.L. Taylor. I was after a tense puzzler, a twisty pageturner, and this did the trick. I read it in a couple of sittings and I think it’s one of the reasons why I got back into reading again. It relit my fuse, if you see what I mean…

There were more goodies as I headed off into the past or off planet. I loved Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L Powell! Embers of War has turned out to be one of my favourite space opera trilogies and it ended in fine fashion. I love Trouble Dog, what a great spaceship – part human, part machine and part dog.

I am such a huge fan of Harry Sidebottom whose Roman thrillers and military action epics have entertained me for so many years now. This summer he’s releasing something a little different. The Return is a Roman whodunnit set in the 2nd century BC. Its central figure is a soldier and so there’s plenty of military action but there’s also an unsettling and gruesome murder mystery for him to solve. I really enjoyed this, completely losing myself in a different world. My review will follow closer to publication in June. It’s definitely one to look out for.

Liberation by Imogen KealeyMy favourite read of the month was Liberation by Imogen Kealey. This is the beautifully written story of Nancy Wake, a real-life heroine of the French Resistance, whose extraordinary and deadly career in France in 1943 and 1944 is vividly portrayed. It’s a stunner. It’s upsetting at times but it carries a message that bad times will pass. And I hung on to that.

My current read is shaping up to be every bit as good, and it’s by one of my favourite authors – The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor. Once more we return to London in the late 1660s, when the shine and glitter have been stripped from the Restoration Court and sedition begins to rear its head. It is excellent.

Other books I reviewed in March and not already mentioned were We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker – without doubt this spectacular novel is a candidate for my book of the year. Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson – I loved this witty homage to classic crime fiction, which tells its own clever murder mystery. Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – this is a sumptuous and enchanting novel which goes back to Cannes in the 1950s when a Hollywood actress, Grace Kelly, meets her prince. The Deep by Alma Katsu – a hugely entertaining horror thriller, which takes us back to the Titanic where there was even more than an iceberg to dread. In Five Years by Rebecca Serle – a devastatingly sad and beautiful tale of love, but not necessarily the love you’d imagine. When You See Me by Lisa Gardner – Flora and DD return – excellent – as Flora must confront her past once more.

We Begin At the End by Chris WhitakerLooking ahead
April is an absolute bumper month for new books! April isn’t going to be any easier than March, far from it, but, hopefully, we will get used to it more, while, and this is the important bit, staying well. I intend to do much more reading in April and will be looking forward to picking up some corkers. I’ve been kindly sent over 30 books to review which are published during the month and, although I won’t be able to read them all, there are plenty I can’t wait to read.

Two of them I’ve already read and reviewed. Strangers by C.L. Taylor and We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker. Another that I’ve read with a review on the way is The Cutting Place by Jane Casey. This book is magnificent and I can’t wait to tell you more about it later this week!

But among the others on my immediate reading pile are (in no particular order):
Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (set in my home town of Oxford!), I am Dust by Louise Beech, The Book of Koli by M.R.Carey, The Dead Line by Holly Watt, The Last Emperox by John Scalzi, Power Play by Tony Kent, Eden by Tim Lebbon, The Wasteland by Anna Jaquier, The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis, The Supernova Era by Cixin Liu, and no doubt plenty more!

I still have books from February and especially March that I want to return to, especially The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman, Without a Trace by Mari Hannah and Burnt Island by Kate Rhodes.

So, while there are challenges to come, there are also treats – and I haven’t even mentioned Easter Eggs yet! It just leaves me to say that I hope you and your loved ones stay well and that books can give you some respite. I’d love to hear which books have been a comfort to you at this time. I’ve been given a voucher. I want to spend it! All the very best to you x

Liberation by Imogen Kealey

Sphere | 2020 (26 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Liberation by Imogen KealeyIt is 1943 and Australian Nancy Wake is ready to celebrate her marriage, in Marseilles, to Henri Fiocca, a wonderful, cultured and successful businessman. But Henri and some other guests know that Nancy is not all that she seems, that, after years of living in countries occupied by the Nazis, she is determined to kill as many of them as she can. For Nancy Wake is known by the Germans as the White Mouse, for her ability to sneak in and out where she shouldn’t, causing the maximum amount of disruption and chaos she can. There is a high price on her head.

With the marriage ceremony barely over, Nancy is again at work, delivering allied airmen to safety in the most dangerous of circumstances. But the Gestapo are becoming suspicious, particularly Major Böhm, who hauls in Henri for questioning. Nancy must flee but she is determined to return to France to continue the fight as a leader of the Maquis, which she does as a captain in the SOE. But Major Böhm will not rest in his hunt for the mouse.

If ever there was a life lived that is suitable for novelisation, it’s the life of Nancy Wake. Knowing that she really existed and that she endured all that she did, that she achieved what she did, very much in a man’s world, makes Liberation all the more irresistible. It also helps that one of the co-authors is Imogen Robertson, who is such a fine writer of historical fiction. And so I couldn’t wait to read this. Like many of us, I’m sure, I’m finding it hard to settle with a book but I found this story particularly appealing. It was good to read about a woman who overcame everything in her fight for her cause, so that life could be restored.

Nancy Wake is an extraordinary character, in fiction most certainly and one can imagine that the real Nancy might see herself here in this portrayal. She dominates the novel as we see events almost entirely from her point of view. We are always in the room with her, or in the camp in the mountains, or hiding in plain sight in a cafe, or in a town square witnessing an atrocity, or drinking with her friends, the men who would kill and die for her, and often do. Nancy is a charismatic figure but she’s also damaged, tormented by her fears for her husband and enraged by the existence of Major Böhm. She is driven by vengeance and fury, but there is self-knowledge, too. But throughout it all we know that she is a force for good. There are glimpses of kindness and warmth, and at times we feel we must weep for the sheer effort that Nancy Wake puts into every day of her life as a leader of the Resistance.

There are other characters to enjoy here, too, especially Nancy’s radioman Denden. I loved the depiction of the community of fighters camped out in the forests and mountains, ruthless but also increasingly in awe of their woman captain. They’re mostly a tight band, each with a distinct voice. But one other character who stands out is Major Böhm, the very opposite of goodness. Major Böhm is a monster. Some of the scenes with him are utterly chilling, reinforcing our solidarity with Nancy Wake, showing us brutally why she is ready to risk absolutely everything to stop him and all of the other monsters. There is so much tension, so much fear. This is not a book to put down easily.

The authors certainly know how to write intense action scenes. There are pages here that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s all very visual, very real, and we see the action unfold moment by moment. I’m not going to describe any of this. You must read it for yourself!

Liberation is a truly excellent novel, succeeding both as a wartime thriller and as a portrayal of a most astonishing and admirable woman whose life would have been so different if she had been allowed to live with the man she loved in peace. The novel also reminds us that bad times do pass, a message that I hang on to. Liberation has proved a fine companion to me over recent days and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Other review
The Paris Winter

Strangers by C.L. Taylor

Avon | 2020 (2 April) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strangers by CL TaylorAlice, Ursula and Gareth are complete strangers to one another and yet they are linked together by crime and mystery. Alice has a new potential boyfriend but they are driven apart by a menacing stalker. Gareth’s elderly mother is receiving strange postcards from her long dead husband. Ursula believes that she is responsible for the death of the love of her life and her life has caused her nothing but torment since. Their worlds collide in unexpected ways and then, as strangers, they must stick together to fight to save the life of one of them. Life will never be the same again.

A new psychological thriller by C.L. Taylor is always a much anticipated event, especially during these strange days when escapist pageturners are a regularly needed tonic. In my opinion, Strangers is the best of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers and I’m grateful to her because I had such a good time reading it.

It’s an unusual crime and psychological thriller in some ways because it tells the separate stories of three characters who don’t know each other at all. Their lives might briefly interconnect at moments, and those moments are such a pleasure in the novel (at those times we know something our characters do not), but this is coincidental. It’s only slowly that their worlds come together but by then we have become invested in the stories of each. It’s an interesting structure and I’m not sure I’ve read anything like it before. It works very well, painting a picture of seemingly random and different lives in a community.

One thing connects our three characters and that is the local shopping centre, making it seem all the more realistic and believable. Much of the novel’s action takes place in places that we are familiar with. The perfect locations for chance encounters, perhaps.

All three characters are enjoyable to get to know but my favourite is Ursula. She is unusual to look at and she’s unusual in other ways, too. I love the way that our opinion of her transforms through the novel as we learn that she is nothing like how she first appears.

All three strangers are fundamentally good people but there are others in the novel who are not. Goodness is under attack. To beat it strangers, communities, society, must unite. In some ways, then, Strangers gives us a positive message, while entertaining us with its thrills. It suggests that we are not alone, even if we think we are. It recognises that there is evil out there but suggests that society can overcome it. I like that.

C.L. Taylor writes very well. She has compassion for her characters and she can tell a good story. If you haven’t read one of these novels before, then I can certainly recommend you start with Strangers.

Other reviews
The Missing
Sleep

Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L PowellTitan Books | 2020 (18 February) | 367p | Review coy | Buy the book

Light of Impossible Stars completes Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War, an excellent space opera series, if ever there was one. That means you need to have read the previous two books first: Embers of War and Fleet of Knives. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

The threat to the human race increases, not just from the determined and terrifying Fleet of Knives, but also from whatever it is that the Fleet of Knives seeks to prevent. The sentient starship Trouble Dog knows better than most the danger that lies ahead and the sacrifices that will have to be made. A miracle is needed and Trouble Dog must seek it out, either with or without other members of her pack. For Trouble Dog is an unusual vessel. She was once a Carnivore-class war ship, part human, part dog and part machine. She is loyal, faithful, obedient, but now she has a mind of her own, partly due to her captain Sal Konstanz.

Meanwhile, Cordelia and her brother live on a distant world that is made of giant plates that keep their distance, physical and social, from each other. It’s a place with an alien past and Cordelia is inexplicably drawn to its ancient artefacts, which she sells to keep alive. Until the day that a spaceship arrives and snatches her away. Aboard the Gigolo Aunt, Cordelia will learn about her past and the mysterious space called The Intrusion.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Embers of War trilogy, not just because it’s exciting and filled with adventure, battles and unfamiliar, strange worlds – and it has all of these things in abundance – but also because of its characters, especially Trouble Dog and her crew, including its engineer, the extraordinary Nod, a Druff, a creature of many legs, faces and offspring, and my favourite crew member. The relationship between Nod and its offspring is brilliantly portrayed. Do read the extract from the second novel that I posted for a taste of how wonderful this is. Trouble Dog herself is one of the most interesting space ships that I’ve read in science fiction. She evolves constantly and her relationship with her captain is integral to the novels, but the ship still retains her canine characteristics and I love that. I particularly like the scenes in which the starship personas gather together as avatars, conscious that they are more canine than human but trying to be as human as possible.

As always with these novels, there are multiple story strands weaving their way through and we move between them, driving the pace and the adventure along. I will also love the times we spend aboard Trouble Dog the most but I did like getting to know Cordelia Pa and her father.

Gareth L Powell is a compassionate writer. He writes about people with feeling and this extends to the non-human characters of the novel, whether they’re an alien or a starship. But there are also monsters in the universe, with big teeth, and they’re a lot of fun to read about. I do love a good space opera and this trilogy is a fine example and, now it’s complete (and you may have some time on your hands), I can heartily recommend it. This may well be, after all, a very good time to venture off-planet.

Other reviews and features
Embers of War
Fleet of Knives
Guest post: ‘The Recent Boom in Space Opera’
Fleet of Knives – an extract

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2020 (2 April – ebook: 26 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

We Begin At the End by Chris Whitaker

Thirty years ago, Vincent King, aged just 15 years old, killed Sissy Radley. He has now served his time. His oldest friend Walk, the Chief of Police, collects Vincent from jail and drives him home to Cape Haven, in California. Cape Haven is a neglected, unfortunately placed and unhappy town, never forgetful of the murder, and now it is thrown into turmoil by the return of its killer. Sissy’s sister Star is a traumatised, damaged woman. Her 13-year-old daughter Duchess looks after her and cares for her little brother Robin who is 6 years old. Duchess is an odd child, disliked and even feared. She hides behind a Wild West persona she has created as a shield. She has her eye on Dickie Darke, a man who wants to transform the town, and who Duchess knows is responsible for much of the evil in Cape Haven. Vincent King means little to Duchess, but he means so much to everyone else. The community is upheaved, its fragile heart pierced and darkness descends. Walk must help Duchess and Robin to escape before they are consumed.

I’m going to make a bold claim here. I don’t think there’s an author out there whose books can move me as profoundly as Chris Whitaker’s books can. His novels defy genre and expectations. The author’s insight into character and place is tremendous and can often be devastating. We Begin at the End is his third novel and another stand alone read. It builds on Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls, both outstanding. Again, we’re taken to small town America and once more we’re introduced to characters, especially children, who melt the reader’s heart while also punching us in the gut. You read one of these books and you’ll be reeling from it afterwards.

Ostensibly, We Begin at the End is a crime thriller but it’s much, much more than that. It is a novel about damaged people living in a town, so inappropriately named, that seems to deserve no better. It’s Walk who tries to hold it together but it’s under assault and Walk is not the man he once was. Part of the novel is also set in a rural community in Montana, which is such a contrast to Cape Haven but still presents such challenges. What links the two is Duchess and Duchess dominates the novel. She is so beautifully created, as is her little brother, and the relationship between the two of them is exquisitely drawn. So too is the relationship between Duchess and her grandfather Hal. Such is the impact of some of the characters in this novel that they almost take on allegorical powers.

We Begin at the End is a journey towards a salvation that may not be possible. It’s a journey assaulted by loss, murder, revenge, cruelty, hatred, fear and love. It’s not always dark, there is gentle humour. There are also big stories as we learn about the people of Cape Haven, including Vincent King. That means that the novel is as intriguing and engrossing as it is emotionally involving. The sense of place is fabulous. Its locations feel real and influential.

Chris Whitaker is a fine author, one of the very finest, and he should be on everyone’s reading list. He proves this yet again with We Begin at the End which is a masterpiece. This is how characters should be written. The author is a genius in creating loveable, damaged, vulnerable human beings, both child and adult. This means the reader is extremely emotionally invested in his stories. It does mean that there will probably be tears. This is a painfully sad novel at times but watching how the characters, especially Duchess, deal with this is mesmerising. Please read it. You won’t regret it. With no doubt at all this is a contender for my top book of 2020. And now, more than ever, we need books like this.

Other reviews
Tall Oaks
All the Wicked Girls