The God Game by Danny Tobey

Gollancz | 2020 (9 January) | 452p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The God Game by Danny TobeyCharlie and Peter receive an invitation they can’t refuse. Messages appear on Charlie’s computer which claim to be the voice of God. He invites them to play the G.O.D. Game. If they succeed at the tasks they are set then all of their dreams will come true. If they fail or deny God, then they will die and if you die in the game then you die for real. This is the catch that Charlie, Peter, and their friends Anhi, Kenny and Alex have yet to learn but, the deeper they get into the game, carrying out the dares set to them by God and reaping the rewards, the more they realise that they are caught in a trap. Shadowy figures, mysterious packages and conflicting messages all serve to trick the friends as they discover that God intends to own them. There is no way out. God sees everything. God knows everything. Only God can end the game.

I immediately fell for the premise of The God Game and it delivers fully. It’s completely irresistible. The game that the teenagers join takes them on a series of loops, of cause and effect. They can never see the full picture and they are helplessly caught in a spiral. And it is all possible because of the society that we live in, where nothing can be hidden from cameras, microphones, hackers, games that can learn from the user’s behaviour. I really enjoyed this satirical take on the networks and programming that tie teenagers, or anyone, to their phones and computers and can manipulate them, which combines with the excitement and tension of a very enjoyable techno thriller.

The novel isn’t as Young Adult as I expected, it’s just as much Old Adult, but it does present an insightful look at the pain of being a teenager in a world controlled by social media, which makes all of the drama of growing up so many times worse. We see the world through the eyes of people who do not know who to trust, who have hopes and dreams, who fear everyone else because they’re a bit different, who are afraid of failure or of being humiliated. The teens have to deal with God but they must also deal with bullies at school, with the emotions of falling in love – usually with the wrong person – and with the expectations of parents and teachers, who are just as flawed as their children and pupils. This affects them all differently and this human drama drives the novel on, making it as emotional as it is thrilling.

The God Game is extremely exciting but there isn’t quite enough reason or explanation in it for me and, towards the end, I did feel that it’s a bit too clever for its own good. Charlie is the main character but I warmed the most to the only girl in the group, Vanhi, who is arguably the bravest of the four, the most loyal and the most self-sacrificing. I also had warm feelings for Kenny and Alex who seem to be manipulated even more than the others – served up as Abraham offered up his son Isaac to God. There are some intriguing glimpses of Old Testament theology through what is otherwise a very secular thriller.

The God Game is a real pageturner, which exceeded my expectations. It’s sharp, witty and tense and provides some real food for thought on the difficulties that teenagers have always faced but which are now arguably amplified by a digital world that never sleeps, that always watches and constantly judges and manipulates.

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain

Quercus | 2020 (16 January) | 426p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo SpainIt is June 2018 and five Lattimer siblings are called back to Spanish Cove, to their family home on the most beautiful and remote section of Ireland’s coast. They reluctantly return from all parts of the globe for a very special reason – to greet the sixth sibling, Adam, who, ten years before, disappeared without trace, presumed dead. The shock of losing Adam destroyed his mother and she died soon afterwards. But now he is back with a story to tell. Their father arranges a party aboard a boat to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. But the following morning,when the boat returned to shore, not everyone was aboard. One of the family was swept overboard, others jumped in to rescue him. But when the body is hauled ashore, local police officer Detective Downes soon learns that the man was dead before he hit the water. Someone on the boat is a murderer. It’s up to Downes to investigate who and why before they strike again.

I loved the premise of Six Wicked Reasons, Jo Spain’s latest stand alone thriller, as soon as I heard about it and read it at once. I adored Dirty Little Secrets, which likewise has an irresistible premise involving a small group of people (aka suspects) in an evocative setting with more secrets than is good for them. It’s a winning formula and Jo Spain excels at it.

The Irish coastal setting of Spanish Cove, with the large house on the cliff, so full of memories, is gorgeous and such a contrast to the other places in which the siblings have found themselves, with the exception of Ellen who stayed behind to keep the house with her father. The others have all grown into very different people from the children they once were but the old alliances that they made are still there. The petty squabbles flare up once more. And then there’s the father. With a family this size, there is bound to be rivalry and envy. It’s fascinating watching this family try to get along, to understand why Adam left them for so long, and knowing that the answers lie in the past.

Moving between the past and the present, this novel immerses the reader in the history of this dysfunctional family. The narrative moves between the family members, while also, and this makes the books especially effective, providing the point of view of the detective who has this mess to untangle. None of the family members are particularly likeable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I didn’t like any of them. But I really liked Detective Downes and it’s he who, in a strange way, holds it all together.

The story is compelling, twisty and involving. The short chapters and the lively structure make this a very difficult book to put down and I powered through it. All the time we really want to know why Adam left his family ten years before and why he’s come back now. This central mystery is backed up by so many more, including the mystery of the identity of the murderer, but there are far more than that. Six Wicked Reasons is thoroughly entertaining, it certainly kept me guessing and it is all reinforced by such a strong and enticing sense of place. I have yet to read any of Jo Spain’s Inspector Tom Reynolds novels, a state of affairs I shall definitely correct, but I can thoroughly recommend her stand alone thrillers and I can’t wait to read the next.

Other reviews
The Confession
Dirty Little Secrets

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

The Eternity War: Dominion by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2019 (28 November) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Dominion by Jamie SawyerDominion completes Jamie Sawyer’s trilogy The Eternity War and so you certainly wouldn’t want to read it without having read the earlier books, Pariah and Exodus. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

The Galaxy is at war. The terrorist organisation Black Spiral, led by Warlord, has unleashed its virus across the Maelstrom, infecting the Krell in an act of ethnic cleansing, planets are being cleansed of life. It is time for a last desperate attempt for the Alliance to defeat Warlord and among the forces will be Lieutenant Jenkins and her Jackals, SimOps troops whose deeds have become legendary. They are also envied by other troops, few of whom would let a little thing like a full-out war get in the way of a bit of retribution. There are scores to be settled on both sides now as old enemies confront one another in an arena of war that is itself the stuff of nightmares.

I am a huge fan of Jamie Sawyer’s science fiction and loved his The Lazarus War trilogy, featuring the most famous SimOps troops of them all, and I have enjoyed The Eternity War every bit as much. But all good things must unfortunately come to an end and this second trilogy here concludes in spectacular, explosive fashion. If you enjoy your science fiction with aliens, spaceships, strange worlds, space stations and battles half as much as I do then you will thoroughly enjoy these books and you can rest assured that Jamie Sawyer writes them very well indeed. He is such a good writer and this is clearly seen in these wonderful characters that we’ve got to know and care for (occasionally hate) through the series.

The concept of the SimOps is brilliant. These are men and women who (and I quote from my review of Exodus) transition into ‘skins’, ‘organic and enhanced bodies that can fight and die as supersoldiers, time after time, while their vulnerable bodies stay safe in their tanks. Each violent death, though, leaves a painful stigmata on their real bodies. Life such as this takes its toll.’ These are suicidal troops who die time after time after time. Just imagine how this affects the soldier – Jamie Sawyer explores this and it’s fascinating. It’s also extremely exciting! Almost every mission ends in disaster and death and, even though these bodies are ‘skins’, the deaths feel meaningful. They’re certainly painful. It takes a certain type of person to be a SimOp and so they are all incredible, especially Jenkins and her Jackals, each of whom has built up quite a back history by now. But Dominion is a little different from the previous two. The fighting now is desperate. It’s not always done on the Jackals’ terms. It could be disastrous for real.

And then there’s the Krell. These aliens feel so real to me after the two trilogies. I can imagine them and I fear them. But we’re also taught to respect them and, if you’ve read the earlier Eternity War novels then you’ll know how this has been brought about. You really need to read these books if only to see the relationship between Jenkins and Pariah.

The action hardly lets up for a moment. When it does, it’s just so Jenkins and the others can rebuild their emotional strength or to understand the political background to the fight. The fight sequences are utterly gripping, tense and engrossing. This isn’t a book to put down lightly. But it’s not all action. The story is a really interesting one and everything is pulled together satisfactorily in this grand conclusion. I’ve loved this trilogy. I can’t wait to follow wherever Jamie Sawyer take us next

Other reviews
The Lazarus War: Legion
The Lazarus War: Origins
The Eternity War: Pariah
The Eternity War: Exodus

All the Rage by Cara Hunter

Penguin | 2020 (23 January) | 442p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Rage by Cara HunterTeenager Faith Appleford is snatched off the street on the outskirts of Oxford. A plastic bag is forced over her head and she is driven off. Thankfully she manages to escape but, when DI Adam Fawley and his team question her, she refuses to say anything about what happened to her. The police will have to find another way to solve the crime. But there is something about it which horrifies Fawley. It’s far too similar to another case he investigated many years before and it’s not too long before questions are being asked of him. And then another girl goes missing. This time she might not be as fortunate as Faith Appleford. Fawley has to find her and face the past.

All the Rage is the fourth novel by Cara Hunter to feature Oxford detective Adam Fawley and, as is no surprise considering how absolutely brilliant the previous one was (No Way Out), it is fantastic. As with all series you benefit from having followed the lives of the detectives through previous novels but All the Rage stands alone very well.

The story is so good, full of surprises, shocks and potential suspects, and particularly interesting for the way in which it shows how crime can affect those close to the victim, whether family or friends, and how the net of suspicion is widely cast. It all adds up to fear and distrust in the community. But what makes this novel, and the others so brilliant, is not just the excellent story but the way in which it is told. Cara Hunter excels at immersing the reader in the investigation and in the case as a whole by filling the narrative with different and unusual perspectives – we’re given extracts from police interviews, from transcripts of court cases, blog posts and tweets. The narrative also moves around between people. Much of the time is spent with Adam Fawley and these sections are in the first person but these are interspersed with third person narrative, showing us how Fawley is viewed by others and also taking us into the world of Faith, her family and her school friends. It’s all extremely clever and very sophisticated – and completely engrossing.

As well as being a tense and gripping read, All the Rage also considers some important themes. There is so much to this story. I can’t say anything about these as I don’t want to give anything away. You must discover these people for yourself. I warmed much more to Adam Fawley in All the Rage. I feel that we know him better in this novel and I like what I find. I also enjoyed meeting the other team members again. They have more to deal with than normal and react and interact in different ways. They’re an interesting bunch. As for Faith Applefield… I cared about her very much.

I live and work in north Oxford and so this is an area I know inside out and, once more, Cara Hunter sets her novel close to home. I suspect I may also know something of the inspiration for the novel. But this place that I love is in safe hands with this author. I’ve read books set in Oxford with glaring errors, inevitably pushing me out of the book, but there is none of that in this series. This feels like the real Oxford, albeit one that has much to frighten, these are no cosey crimes. Its authenticity makes All the Rage even more compelling for me and, I suspect, for all readers, whether they know the city or not.

All the Rage is yet another absolute corker from Cara Hunter! I love this series so much and, as an Oxfordian, it appeals even more and the Oxford that is portrayed here is spot on. This is such a clever story and I love the way in which it’s told, approaching it from every angle and from so many perspectives. It’s extremely effective. The result is that this book is so difficult to put down and is utterly engrossing. I can’t wait for more!

Other review
No Way Out

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of this marvellous book. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

All the Rage blog tour

Deep State by Chris Hauty

Simon & Schuster | 2020 (23 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Deep State by Chris HautyAmerica has a new President, Richard Monroe, who has some controversial and populist policies in mind that worry the establishment, the Deep State that runs the country from behind the scenes. Hayley Chill, ex-army and boxer, is thrown into the heart of a White House in turmoil when she becomes its newest intern. There’s something about Hayley that gets herself noticed – her photographic memory, her eye for detail, her looks, her plain talking and her military precision and determination – and this makes her unpopular with many. This is a competitive world and they’re envious. But these traits also attract the attention of not only the Chief of Staff but also the President himself. Hayley’s career looks set to soar until the day when she arrives at the house of the Chief of Staff to deliver some papers and discovers him dead. The authorities think it’s a natural death but Hayley, who found a footprint in the snow outside, thinks differently. When she begins to question it people die and, from that moment on, Hayley knows that to survive she must work out who wants the Chief of Staff dead. What she will discover is unthinkable.

I’m a huge fan of political thrillers and Deep State is most assuredly one of the best I’ve read. It opens spectacularly with our memorable introduction to Hayley Chill, soldier and fighter, and from that minute on we are as fascinated by Hayley as we are hooked by the thriller. Hayley is a remarkable figure. In many ways she goes against the stereotype of a West House intern. She’s underestimated by almost everyone as a southern redneck, perhaps she even underestimates herself, but her talents are astonishing. She’s an unusual person, she has her routines and rituals, her rules and obsessions, and she is immensely driven and extremely good at her job. When she fears that the President may be the next target for the assassin we know that she’ll stop at nothing to protect him. Hayley Chill attracts attention. Her position is increasingly dangerous and extreme. Her story is utterly gripping.

Deep State has a fantastic plot. It’s complex and there are surprises so extreme it can take your breath away. This actually happened to me at one point. I was reading it on the bus and had to put it down to gather my thoughts and laugh in admiration! I was impressed! It’s not often I’m completely blindsided by a book.

I loved the Washington and Camp David settings. The summer is turning to winter and the heat is turning to cold and snow. There’s such a sense of place with the descriptions of rooms inside the White House, the upstairs and downstairs feel of it, especially for the interns who find themselves confined to the deepest basement. It’s a stratified world with the interns at the very bottom and the President at the very top but Hayley is to discover that not all is as it seems, that the power might not lay where one expects it. It’s a minefield and Hayley is the one best suited to negotiate it and it’s riveting watching her do it.

Chris Hauty writes very well indeed and Deep State is superb. Hayley Chills in particular is a fine achievement. I would love to meet her again and soon. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for any future novels by this excellent writer.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2015 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Letters to the Lost by Iona GreyOne cold February evening, a young woman runs through the London streets, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t even have shoes on her feet. Jess escapes down a small and quiet street and there she finds a house that is clearly not lived in. As Jess tries to make herself as comfortable as she can, a letter arrives in the morning post, which hints at a mystery in the past, a love affair from over seventy years before. Jess finds more letters and soon finds herself caught up in the great love affair of Stella, a clergyman’s unhappy wife, and Dan, a US bomber pilot. Jess, along with Will, a young man who enters Jess’s life, becomes obsessed with finding out who these people were while playing out her own story.

I recently read The Glittering Hour, Iona Grey’s latest novel, and I was enchanted. It is such a beautiful tale of love and loss set in the 1920s and 1930s and so, not surprisingly, I immediately sought out its predecessor, Letters to the Lost. Letters to the Lost is every bit as wonderful. It’s not quite as devastatingly sad but it is such a beautiful story and, once more, features some wonderful characters.

This time the novel is split between the present day(ish) and 1942 and 1943. The blitz is over but London and its citizens are scarred by it. With many people away fighting on the frontline in Europe and North Africa, for those left at home, this is a time of worry, of terrifying telegrams, of food shortages and sometimes even boredom as so much of life is curtailed by the restrictions, hardships and blackouts of war. This is a time of hasty marriages and Stella has made one to a clergyman with whom she must settle in a small village where her business is everybody else’s. It is a disaster from the outset and for much of the novel we feel intensely for this young wife. The romance with the bomber pilot Dan is exquisitely portrayed but it is tinged with tension, guilt and fear. So few pilots survived the war. This is a time when you had to grab what moments of happiness you can, in the face of twitching net curtains and nosey neighbours. Iona Grey captures this perfectly and I was engrossed in this gorgeous love story.

Stella and Dan’s story alternates with that of Jess and Will in the present day. For much of the time, we’re so caught up in Stella and Dan that the later story of Jess and Will plays out in its shadow but by the end it is just as compelling and the parallels between the two are cleverly made. I loved Jess, perhaps even more than Stella, and Will is an unusual young man. My heart, though, belonged to Dan.

Iona Grey writes beautifully. The words dance and dazzle across the page. Both past and present are depicted so vividly and I loved the way that the story moves between London with its bombed out churches and tea dances and the Cambridgeshire countryside with its fetes and squabbles and where tinned peaches can cause such excitement. Letters to the Lost is an enchanting, emotional read and I loved every page.

Other review
The Glittering Hour