A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward

A Deadly Thaw | Sarah Ward | 2016 | Faber & Faber | 377p | Bought copy | Buy the book

A Deadly Thaw by Sarah WardIn 2004 Lena Fisher is arrested for the murder of her husband Andrew, whom she is accused of suffocating in their home in Bampton, Derbyshire. Lena pleads guilty and serves twelve years for the crime. In 2016 a man is found shot dead on a slab in a mortuary that hasn’t seen use for decades. Dental records prove that the victim is Andrew Fisher. Lena, recently released from prison and living under her maiden name of Gray, refuses to answer any of the inevitable questions that follow the shocking and puzzling discovery. Instead, Lena disappears, leaving her sister, therapist Kay, to make sense of it all. With clues turning up in the most unnerving of ways, Kat has every reason to worry.

DI Francis Sadler, DS Damian Palmer and DC Connie Childs have their hands full trying to unravel the mystery of Andrew Fisher’s resurrection and second death and soon find themselves re-investigating the original murder case from 2004, a case that now threatens the careers of the officers who originally took part. As they dig deeper into Lena’s secrets, hidden for so many years, they must face the reality that the person who shot Andrew Fisher is still at large.

I was so impressed last year by Sarah Ward’s debut In Bitter Chill, which introduced us to her charismatic and handsome trio of detectives. I predicted at the time that this was an author and series to watch and how right I was. But whereas In Bitter Chill was an impressive debut, A Deadly Thaw is an outstanding and extremely confident and assured novel. I’d go so far as to say that A Deadly Thaw is a nigh on perfect piece of detective fiction.

For one thing, the plot is fantastic. It’s complex and so intriguing and the conclusion does it justice. I felt completely overwrought at the end. It’s clever but it’s also thrilling. I couldn’t have read this book slowly if I’d wanted to. The novel weaves together so well the two investigations – the police inquiry and the more personal hunt by Lena’s sister into their past. This means that the reader sees a little more of the whole picture than the characters but that doesn’t mean that we know it all – on the contrary.

The characters are extremely convincing. Kat plays a key role but, as with In Bitter Chill, I couldn’t get enough of Sadler, Palmer and Connie. You don’t need to have read the former novel at all to appreciate this one but I think that watching the shifting dynamic between these three will prove a real highlight of the series.

If I had to think of a fault with A Deadly Thaw then I’d be out of luck because I can’t come up with one. Sarah Ward is a fine writer of detective fiction and puzzles, great with characters and also with pace and tension. A Deadly Thaw is to be thoroughly recommended.

Other review
In Bitter Chill

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016 (6 October) | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thin Air by Michelle PaverIt is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.

And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.

Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.

The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.

There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.

The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.

Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Dark Matter

The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe

The Silence Between Breaths | Cath Staincliffe | 2016 | Constable | 272p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silence Between Breaths by Cath StaincliffeIt’s April 2015 and it’s another ordinary day for passengers and crew aboard the 10:35 train from Piccadilly, Manchester, to Euston, London. Except, no day is ever really ordinary for those who have places to be, things they must do.

Jeff has an interview. He really doesn’t want to be late. Caroline is worrying about her elderly mother but at last, today, she has the chance to have some time for herself. Naz has dreams. He wants to run his own restaurant, serving a fusion of Indian and Western food, but for now he’s doing the best he can collecting rubbish and dealing with the public aboard a busy train. Holly is looking forward to a shopping jolly but there’s something about Jeff that has caught her eye. Meg is off for a brief holiday with Diana, her partner of many, many years. She has something to tell her when the time’s right. Nick is a bit of a git, most people would agree, but today he’s off to a family wedding with his wife and kids. If only they would leave him in peace. Rhona is on a business trip, knowing she must impress the colleagues sitting beside her, but her mind is on her daughter who is not as well as she could be. And then there’s Saheel, the loner with the bag that he will not let out of his grip.

All these lives come together for a few hours in the claustrophobic confines of a train that keeps being stopped for one reason or another. Tempers are easily frayed. But, as time passes, little connections are formed between some of them. It all helps to make the time pass.

The Silence Between Breaths is an utterly engrossing, terrifyingly real thriller, which stays in the mind for such a long time after the last page is turned. On the surface, it follows the familiar pattern of a disaster movie, with sections moving to and fro between each of the main protagonists as the clock ticks towards catastrophe. But such a description doesn’t do justice to the skill and incredible empathy with which Cath Staincliffe breathes life into her characters. Each of these people is fully rounded, all very different, some more likeable than others, one despicable, but each with a backstory that, in many ways, could be considered rather mundane but is actually so fascinating, because it feels real, in one case chillingly so. In one of these stories, the reader might recognise themselves.

There are many individual stories that appeal in the novel but the characters of Jeff, Holly and Naz are impossible to forget. I also felt deep affection for Caroline.

But then there’s the horror and it is appalling. I found sections of the novel almost too harrowing to read. I cried and cried, not just because of the terror but also because Cath Staincliffe had made me care for these people so much. And, in the aftermath, we are drawn into the group of survivors and watch as they try to live with what has happened and to understand it.

The Silence Between Breaths is beautifully written. It also reflects on some large and significant themes, not least of which is how terrorism affects the families of those who commit the outrage. Life isn’t simple and this incredible novel shows how complicated life is for everyone on board that train, for those who survived and for those who didn’t, as well as for all their families. This novel made me look around, not to look for threats and dangers, but to look at everyone else, carrying out their daily lives just as I do, each with their concerns, dreams and worries. We’re all in it together although heaven forbid that any of us should ever have to experience anything that happens here.

Cath Staincliffe has created an immensely harrowing, powerful and sad read that is also impossible to put down. Out of all the books I’ll read this year, this is one of those I’ll remember the most and for every good reason. Outstanding and heartbreaking in equal measure.

I was delighted to be asked to be part of the blog tour for this wonderful novel. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

the-silence-between-breaths-poster

Treason by James Jackson

Treason | James Jackson | 2016 (6 October) | Zaffre | 300p | Review copy | Buy the book

Treason by James JacksonElizabeth I is not long dead. James I, a Protestant, wears the crown and his throne is not yet steady. As far as Spain is concerned, it is still at war with England and surely now is the time for a true Catholic to seize the throne. James has inherited his chief statesman Lord Cecil, his ‘Beagle’, from Elizabeth, rewarding his cunning with an Earldom. A master of intelligence, Cecil has deployed his agents to seek out Catholic plots against the king. One agent in particular, Christian Hardy, is ready, waiting for his great enemy, the appallingly brutal ‘Realm’, to make his move. But in the background a network of Catholics stirs. Secrecy is paramount but one among them is revealed to us as the explosives expert – Guido or Guy Fawkes. It is Guy Fawkes who will light the wick.

Many of us, at least on this side of the pond, remember, remember the 5th of November when Guy (or Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up James I and his ministers at the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the Gunpowder Plot, audacious in the extreme, was doomed to failure from the outset but, during those paranoid days, so soon after the death of Elizabeth I, Catholics and Protestants were more suspicious of each other than ever. The Protestant King was very possibly quite sure that a plot would get him in the end, while the Pope and Spanish King could be confident that their agents and priests, hidden away in the country manors of England’s surviving Catholic aristocrats, would perform fearlessly their ultimate duty for God.

James Jackson’s Treason presents the tangled web of months of intrigue and treachery that led up to 5 November. The narrative flits between our cast, the proceedings laid out before our eyes like a play on a stage. William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson feature, playing minor parts, observing from the wings almost like a chorus as one conspirator meets another, meets another and so on. There are multiple strands of plot at play here – there is the Gunpowder Plot, there is the counter plot and then there is the blood curdling, black vendetta between Hardy and Realm. Occasionally James I and his Beagle pop in to take a look at how affairs are proceeding, the two of them forming an unlikely pair, and then there are others who think they can influence the game and, more often than not, pay a terrible price for their amateur schemes. Plans are pulled together in country estates but London draws them in, even the King can’t stay away from his capital forever.

The Jacobean period isn’t one I know well at all, outside of its theatres and playwrights, and so I was fascinated to read my first novel on the Gunpowder Plot, a subject in which I’ve always been interested. The focus here is very much on the nitty gritty of the plots and, as I mentioned, there’s more than one of them. It’s a complicated picture and its tension is increased by the way in which the narrative moves back and forth between the protagonists. It’s immediate, exciting, and very dark.

The presumably fictional battle between Hardy and Realm is grim and even overshadows the historical Gunpowder Plot. I saw neither Hardy or Realm as a hero, certainly not Realm who’s as nasty a piece of work as any I’ve met in historical fiction, but I also found little to like in Christian Hardy. You can see why he is as he is but the damage done to him has made him impossible to like. Women are used as pawns by both Hardy and Realm. These two men are cold to the heart and locked in a battle that one senses cannot end well.

Treason is such a well-written book, its complicated plot kept tightly under control, the dialogue intriguing. The Gunpowder Plot itself is covered in such fascinating, meticulous detail and I lapped this part of the novel up, enjoying in particular the two characters who radiate some charm in this dark world of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, Adam Hardy and the Princess Elizabeth, but I still wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw them.

There are touches of real beauty and poignancy in James Jackson’s prose – so much is at stake here – but I must admit to finding the novel relentlessly grim, the majority of its characters too difficult to care for. The biggest issue is history itself – we all know how the Gunpowder Plot ended and the move towards that conclusion is inevitable (inevitably). That aspect of the novel is offset, though, by the feud between Hardy and Realm, a storyline that refuses to be predictable. But, despite the gloom and the inevitability of the Gunpowder Plot, Treason is a compelling read and extremely difficult to put down.

Forsaken Skies by D. Nolan Clark

Forsaken Skies | D. Nolan Clark | 2016 | Orbit | 570p | Review copy | Buy the book

Forsaken Skies by D. Nolan ClarkWhen forgotten, rather elderly fighter pilot hero Aleister Lanoe pursues the desperate young renegade Thom through a dangerous network of wormholes to the space station Hexus, neither of them would guess that this is the beginning of a whole new adventure, one that offers them both the chance of redemption. Or, as is more likely, a painful death on a colony planet so far away from the rest of human civilisation that nobody would even notice.

Niraya, a colony of farmers and religious exiles, is under attack. The spearhead of an invasion force landed and slaughtered everything in its path until it was brought to a standstill. Wars are common between planets – fighter pilots are the celebrities of the day – but there is nothing familiar, or even human, about this invasion and telescopes reveal that the rest of the huge force is just weeks, if not days, away. And nobody beyond the planet cares. In desperation, two religious women, an Elder and her Aspirant, smuggle themselves aboard a tanker travelling from Niraya to Hexus seeking help from wherever they can find it. In the end, help comes from where they least expect it and a small force makes its way to Niraya on what must surely be a one-way trip.

Forsaken Skies is the first in a series, The Silence, and it is off to a fine start. We’re given a small group of unlikely mismatched heroes – including the irrepressibly awful and yet deep down rather redeemable Maggs as well the old pilot who fought on the wrong side of the last war and ended up almost incinerated for his trouble (there’s a reason why he never takes his helmet off). All are estranged from society for one reason or another, or, as in the case of a couple of them, AWOL, and all seem content (to varying degrees) to be led by Lanoe into a battle that seems impossible to win. We’re given some of the reasons why during Forsaken Skies but there’s a strong sense that there is much more to learn through future novels.

While much of the novel focuses on our motley crew, their relationships, their inspiration and their methods of coping with the threat of imminent death, the rest deals with the invasion of Niraya and its moon so rich in everything that the invaders want. The action scenes are fantastic – dog fights galore – and yet, what I particularly like, they don’t take over the book. They play their part and it’s a great one but they are not the reason for the book’s existence. There’s a lot more going on here than thrilling fights to the death against an unknowable threat in the terrifying vacuum of space.

The novel is quite a length but I found it a fast, fun read, the story moved along by interesting characters, strange worlds, battles and a formidable, creepy enemy. This isn’t hard science fiction; its emphasis is very much on thrills. My one issue would be that one or two of the characters could have been developed further, just as I would have liked a few more moments to stand still and look around. Having said that, I think several characters are very well done – Valk, for instance, is outstanding – but Lanoe is supposed to be the central figure and I feel like I barely know him at all. I felt deeply for several of these people, though, and shed tears for one, so D. Nolan Clark is definitely doing something right.

I love first contact stories and this is a good one. The more we learn about the enemy, the more I wanted to know. The invaders’ mission is tantalising and some of the conclusions drawn are fascinating. I definitely want to know much more about them and the indications are that in book two I will. Our bunch of heroes are curious and not typical. There’s plenty I want to know about them too. I was eager to read Forsaken Skies as soon as it arrived and it did not disappoint.

Forsaken Skies is an adventure set in space. It’s fun (loving to hate Maggs is one of its many pleasures), thrilling, easy to read, and it promises much for the rest of the series.

Strangers by Paul Finch

Strangers | Paul Finch | 2016 (22 September) | Avon | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strangers by Paul FinchMen are being killed brutally in Manchester, one after another, the victim of a serial killer who shows no signs of losing the taste for murder. But the evidence suggests that this is not your usual serial killer. The murderer is a woman and it takes no time at all for the media to label her ‘Jill the Ripper’.

Lucy Clayburn has been a PC in the Crawley area of Manchester for ten years and she is desperate to make detective, working harder and for more hours than anyone else, her colleagues becoming younger and younger. But PC Clayburn has become notorious for a mistake she made years ago, when new to the job. But she will not give up. When the chance comes to go undercover as part of the massive investigation into Jill the Ripper, Lucy jumps at it, giving little thought to the extreme danger she could be placing herself in, especially when she decides to do some extra digging on her own and discovers something that should make her run a mile. But Lucy Clayburn isn’t like that. She’s drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame. It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets burned.

I love Paul Finch’s novels. His Mark Heckenburg series is compulsive reading. I cannot get enough of Heck. It’s true that when I first heard about Strangers I jumped up and down at the thought that Heck was back but any disappointment at discovering that this is the introduction of a new police officer died a quick death as soon as I read the first chapter of Strangers (what a beginning!) and then I fell in love with Lucy Clayburn. I say ‘introduction’ and I really hope that this is what Strangers is. I need much more of this.

I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot of this novel except to say that it is utterly engrossing, making Strangers next to impossible to put down. Darkness walks through these pages. It’s moody. The setting and themes are at times grim, the people we meet often desperate, and, intriguingly, many of the most evil or disturbed characters have a charismatic side to them that makes them unusually fascinating. But the star of the piece is Lucy – she is brilliantly drawn. Her back history is integral but it isn’t laboured, it works within the story, and she is fully three-dimensional from the beginning. She does have a rather irritating habit of acting first and thinking second but this is backed up by her personality which has been so well developed. Her behaviour feels believabale even if at times it feels ridiculously reckless in a police officer who wants promotion (or, indeed, in a human being who wants to live to make forty).

Above all else, as you’d expect from a Paul Finch novel, Strangers is a fun, exciting and disturbing murder thriller that left this reader at least wanting much more from Lucy in the future – and from Heck. From them both, please.

Other review
Hunted

Viking Fire by Justin Hill

Viking Fire | Justin Hill | 2016 (22 September) | Little, Brown | 379p | Review copy | Buy the book

Viking Fire by Justin HillIn 1030 King Olaf of Norway is slain in battle by forces loyal to Cnut the Great. Olaf’s younger brother Harald, this his first taste of war, is dragged from the slaughter, not expected to survive his wounds. But survive he does, hidden away by caring hands, fuelled by plans of vengeance. Homeless and hunted, Harald thrives as a warrior for hire, attracting larger numbers of followers with his acts of bravery and the treasure that results. Harald’s adventures take him across the frozen north, pitting him against fearless chieftains, and then on to Rus before he arrives in Mickelgard – Constantinople – and there Harald wins glory as a protector of Emperors, even a lover of Empresses, as he fights for his new overlords across the Mediterranean, from Jerusalem to Italy and Sicily.

Always, though, Harald waits for the time when he can return to Norway and reclaim his throne. And there he can earn the name of Harald Hardrada, the Hard Ruler, and be heralded as the greatest warrior of his age. But Harald is not a man who can rest and his dream of winning everything and more that Cnut achieved drives Harald on to England. The year is 1066.

Viking Fire immerses the reader in a the last golden age of the Viking World which arguably reached its height with the extraordinary larger-than-life figure of Harald Hardrada. Harald’s world was as big as his ambition and Justin Hill covers it all, providing especially memorable sections set in the north and then in Constantinople. The contrast between these two places is enormous and yet Vikings were powerful in both. How Harald and his men adapt from fighting brutal rogue chieftains in frozen forests and on ice to dealing with lethal Byzantine politics in perfumed palaces of princes and eunuchs is incredible. Justin Hill describes both worlds so well, and somehow Byzantium seems even deadlier than surviving a frostbitten night on a storm-battered mountain.

Harald, a faithful Christian (and brother to Saint Olaf), even makes it to Jerusalem where he tours the sites of the Bible, following in the footsteps of a Christ he views as a warrior god, holding court in a great heavenly hall of rejoicing Vikings. Harald escorts to Jerusalem from Cyprus the masons who will build the Holy Sepulchre – I love moments like that in historical fiction. They make the hairs stick up on the back of my neck.

The novel resonates with these two different worlds, their different forms of Christianity, their entirely different ways of ruling. But the book also presents intimate portraits of the men and women of the time and not just Harald. We meet the women that he loved and the men who fought alongside him, creating bittersweet relationships. Viking warriors are not always the easiest of men to get along with! The Byzantine rulers, especially Theodora, are enigmatic figures, hardly likeable but most definitely charismatic – and scene stealers.

Viking Fire is told in Harald’s own words. His intention is to tell the life of his brother Olaf, once King and now a Saint but this is most definitely Harald’s own story, revealing the extraordinary life of a great warrior and good king who also played a significant role in England’s fate during that year of destiny, 1066. Above all else, this is a novel of adventure and bloody action and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Justin Hill writes so well, capturing the times but making them fully accessible, while telling the engrossing and adventurous story of a man who deserves to be remembered but has been overlooked by that other warrior who followed him, William the Conqueror. But it was Harald who was the last and greatest Viking. It’s a tremendous story.