Perfect Prey by Helen Fields

Avon | 2017 (27 July) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Perfect Prey by Helen FieldsA charity worker is sliced to death in broad daylight at a music festival. A palliative care nurse is crushed to death in her home. Further deaths follow. The murders are very different, suggesting more than one killer is at work, but the links between them indicate that the city of Edinburgh is entering dark days indeed. Days in which those who do good for society are particularly at risk.

DI Luc Callanach is assigned one set of murders while DI Ava Turner investigates the other. To complicated matters, Joe Edgar, an old boyfriend of Ava’s, has turned up in Edinburgh from London to investigate a major cybercrime case. Luc is having to deal with the ramifications of something in his past and Edgar is not helping matters as the space around Ava turns into a battleground. Extreme lengths will need to be taken to bring down the killers and help comes from the unlikeliest of sources. Toes will be trodden on, boundaries will be overstepped. The repercussions may be vast.

Perfect Prey lets you know very early on that we’re in dark and gruesome territory. The murders are vile indeed. No wonder Callanach and Turner are obsessed with solving them and we follow them every meticulous and grim step of the way. The novel has an interesting twist in its structure. The first half is a conventional police procedural but at the 48% mark (I was reading a kindle version!), it shifts and the narrative opens up to include the darker world that Callanach, Turner and their allies are trying to infiltrate. This came at the perfect moment, in my opinion, and lifted the novel from something that had begun to drag into an exhilarating and page-turning second half and finale.

I found Perfect Prey to be a difficult read at times. The gory murders and the casual cruelty of some of the novel’s characters were grim to read. There was one character in particular who drove me to the limits of my endurance, so much so that his thread of the story did mar the novel for me a bit. Callanach’s new neighbour also drove me mad, I’ll be honest. The private lives of Callanach and, especially, Turner influenced the book to a very large degree, at times slowing down the movement of the novel. Fortunately, the shift in narrative that I mentioned before really did the book a big favour and gave its momentum a much-needed kick. The grim mood, though, does persevere until the very last page. I should mention that I wasn’t able to finish the previous novel, Perfect Remains, and so Perfect Prey represents a big step forwards – I found it a much better novel.

Perfect Prey is ingeniously plotted, supported by two very strong characters in Callanach and Turner. Despite my issues with the novel, I was riveted by the second half and clung on to its every word. I just hope that the future might brighten up a little for our courageous and determined policing duo – but I rather suspect it won’t.

Dead in the Dark by Stephen Booth

Sphere | 2017 (13 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead in the Dark by Stephen BoothTen years ago Annette Bower disappeared from her home in Bakewell in the Peak District. She went out to walk her dog and never returned, unlike the dog which later turned up at home. Her husband, Reece Bower, was the obvious suspect and the police were convinced that they had the right man. But murder is a difficult charge to make stick when there’s no body, even more so when the supposed victim’s father insists he spotted her in Buxton some time later. Now, all these years later, the case is about to be reopened and for the strangest of reasons – Reece Bower has also vanished. Detective Inspector Ben Cooper is certain that this is no simple missing person case. He’s sure the two disappearances are connected. Maybe at last the police can find out what really happened to Annette Bower.

DS Diane Fry is still working for the Major Crime Unit based in Nottingham. There is no beautiful scenery here, like there is for Ben. Instead she is faced with a tense urban community, torn apart by poverty and, since the closure of the coalmines, a lack of jobs. Life is particularly hard for the large population of immigrant Poles who are trying to make a life in the deprived town of Shirebrook. When one is found dead, Diane has a job on her hands to make anyone even talk about it.

Dead in the Dark is – and I can hardly believe it – the 17th novel in Stephen Booth’s wonderful Cooper and Fry series. I have yet to read them all, although I’m getting round to it, but I’ve never had a problem dipping into any of the books. They are all self-contained, although this does mean that you can miss out on the development (and history) of the relationship between Ben and Diane. I must admit that I regard the two as rather disconnected but this will probably change once I’ve read more of the earlier novels.

Dead in the Dark presents two cases – Ben’s and Diane’s. I love this series especially for its Peak District setting and so, not surprisingly, it’s Ben’s that caught my attention most of all. I love the descriptions of the landscape and I also love how Ben Cooper is such a part of it. He walks it, he has family who farm it, it’s in his blood. The Annette Bower case is particularly intriguing and I can understand why it gets under Ben’s skin. As his boss tells him, Ben is a policeman who is respected for his hunches, and his hunches are put to good use here.

Diane Fry’s case is much more gritty and this is backed up by the themes of immigration and politics – topical but no less painful for that. I completely empathised with the author’s viewpoint and it certainly made me think but I did find it a harder story to read. Rightly or wrongly, like Ben Cooper, I’m happier when walking the hills and dales of the Peaks.

This is fine storytelling. It doesn’t rely on twists or shocks, just good plotting and policing, and an intriguing case. As usual with this series, we’re introduced to an interesting set of characters who help and hinder Ben as he tries to get to the bottom of peoples’ lies and secrets. But Ben himself is such a likeable man who, despite the sadness in his past, contrasts with Diane who is clearly troubled. I love reading about these characters. I love the world in which Ben moves and I really enjoy the cases with which he is confronted. I always look forward to the next instalment of this wonderful series and now I must try and be patient again. But at least I have some of the backlist to catch up with while I wait.

Other reviews
The Murder Road
Secrets of Death

Unleashed by Peter Laws

Allison & Busby | 2017 (20 July) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Unleashed by Peter LawsFifteen years ago young Holly Wasson hung herself in her bedroom in 29 Barley Street, Menham in South London, amidst rumours and reports of poltergeist activity in the house. Holly’s older sister Rachel barely recovered from the trauma, leaving her home and mother behind as she made a new life for herself elsewhere. But now she has returned, called back by her childhood friend Jo Finch, and in the worst of circumstances. Their friend Steph Ellis has been killed, horrifically and publicly. The signs are ominous and frightening – has the poltergeist returned to Menham to finish what it began all those years ago? Psychic couple Bob and Joyce Hodges seem to think it has and they’re intent on gathering the original group of friends together to see it off once and for all.

The police are not quite sure what to make of it and so they call in Matt Hunter, a former minister and now a professor of sociology. Matt has had some success in the past with this sort of thing and he is determined to get to the truth of it all and put the idea of a poltergeist to rest. But what if it’s real?

Earlier this year Peter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in the sensational novel Purged and how brilliant it is to have the follow-up novel, Unleashed, so soon. Matt has done well from the success of his earlier case but otherwise the two novels aren’t connected and so you can read one without the other. I’d suggest you do, though, for the background information Purged provides about Matt and his family. Unleashed builds on the mood of Purged and takes us even deeper into the darkness of poltergeists, restless spirits, paranormal beliefs and, above all else, fear.

Unleashed presents a deliciously creepy portrait of fear and it grips completely from start to finish. The intensity is increased by the narrative which moves between Matt and other characters, especially Rachel, the young woman drawn back to the house that terrified her years before and killed her sister. 29 Barley Road is a chillingly modern interpretation of the Haunted House and it’s just as scary when viewed from the outside. What did people see on the rooftops? And what is wrong with the pets? But this novel isn’t a conventional horror story – it’s a clever thriller and the terror doesn’t always lie where expected. Although, having said that, there is a fantastic seance scene in Unleashed that scared the heebie jeebies out of me! I love to be scared by a book and this did a great job of it.

I love the character of Matt Hunter and I hope we enjoy many more books with Matt and his family. But in Unleashed Matt has to share the limelight with some great personalities, notably the Hodges and Rachel. Knowing who to trust here is as much a problem as pinning down a poltergeist and it makes for a great thriller with just the right amount of creepy chills.

Other review
Purged

Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Tor Books | 2017 (11 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy KressAliens have arrived in New York. Their spaceship, known as the Embassy, floats on a platform in the city’s harbour but nothing has been seen yet of its inhabitants, although communication has been made. The aliens, dubbed the ‘Debnebs’ out of a mistaken belief that they had arrived from the Debneb star, are, thankfully, friendly but are unable to show themselves due to the danger physical contact could bring to themselves and to humanity. But after two months, the Debnebs reveal that they are ready to meet their human hosts. Dr Marianne Jenner, an unremarkable scientist working on the human genome, is picked as someone they particularly wish to make contact with. And so Marilyn and a few other scientists are brought to the Embassy and taken inside its strange walls.

The Debnebs warn of a threat that is travelling to Earth, due to arrive in only ten months. All life could be extinguished. The only chance is for human scientists to work with the Debnebs to come up with a solution. Time is short, the outcome unlikely, but there is little choice for Marianne and the others. But as the doors seal behind them and work commences, the rest of humanity is affected by the knowledge of both the aliens in New York and the threat that they warn against. People are affected in different ways but nobody is immune, including Marianne’s three grown children who each react to the challenges facing mankind in their own way.

Tomorrow’s Kin has a deceptively calm beginning. All seems normal. Marianne is receiving acclaim for some of her breakthroughs in tracing the human genome into its distant past while her two sons and daughter are each living their own separate lives. But everything is thrown into uncertainty by the revelations that follow thick and fast throughout this thoroughly absorbing and captivating novel. First contact stories are a favourite of mine and almost without fail they suck me in and Tomorrow’s Kin did this very quickly indeed, largely, I think, because of the sophisticated and seemingly simple way in which we’re guided into the Embassy and into knowledge.

There are plenty of big themes here, notably the shaping of the family. Several years are covered and more than one generation plays a role. Despite all that is going on, we’re still given time to immerse ourselves in Marianne’s family life with all of its complications, both for better and worse. When the grandchildren play their role later on, I was particularly hooked. I love what these children bring to this novel. But apart from family, the novel is equally concerned with our relationship to our own planet, to Earth. This is a novel with environmental warnings but they are made very well indeed. This isn’t a book that bludgeons the reader with message and policy. It achieves its aim with wit and a gentle touch. We are shown the effects that an alien species can have on another, or on a world, in so many ways. There is a sensitivity in the way that some people react to their world that strongly affected me.

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a trilogy and this is such good news. The novel ends at a good point – there is some conclusion but it also opens another door to any number of possible futures. Nancy Kress’s writing is wonderful – this is the first novel by her that I’ve read – and I loved its style, pace and humour. Tomorrow’s Kin tells a great story very well indeed and I can’t wait to see where we’re taken next.

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Head of Zeus | 2017 (6 July) | 397p | Review copy | Buy the book

Court of Lions by Jane JohnsonKate Fordham has left her old life, and much that she loves, behind her, driven from her home by brutal circumstances that have left her scarred and living under a new name in the beautiful city of Granada in Spain. Kate works in a bar in the city but her heart is most at home in Granada’s Alhambra, the palace of the Moors, with its stunning architecture and luxurious gardens. One day while visiting the site, Kate discovers in one of the walls a screwed up piece of very old paper marked with words written in no known language. And a door into the Alhambra’s past opens before us.

It is the late 15th century and the last act of the Sultans’ rule in Granada and southern Spain is about to play out. Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed stands on the verge of the throne. The prince’s father, the Sultan, is unpopular, his cruel uncle hated even more, but the Sultan seals his fate when he puts his Sultana, the prince’s mother, aside in favour of Isobel de Solis, his beautiful Spanish war captive. But war within the family almost pales beside the threat from outside Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain are resolute in their determination to drive the Moors from Spain once and for all and they will show no mercy. But safe within the defensive walls of the Alhambra, the young prince shows another side. His closest friend is a child called Blessings. Blessings was sold from a desert tribe of North Africa to be the prince’s companion. Blessings finds the unexpected: painful unrequited love for the prince known and loved as Momo. Their story will play out against the drama of Granada’s last stand.

Court of Lions is such an enticing read! It’s a beautiful looking book with that fine hallmark of a Head of Zeus hardback – a ribbon – and just looking at it made me want to read it. I’m so glad I did. Jane Johnson richly evokes the last days of what must have seemed an Eden on Earth, the Alhambra, and brings it alive in colour, scents and fountain waters, though the involving story of Mumo and Blessings. The descriptions of the Alhambra are gorgeous, reminding us how hard it must have been for its Moorish inhabitants to give it up. This is a novel about war, though, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes as Mumo and his family fight each other for supremacy before Isabella and Ferdinand exert their own cruel influence. But the most wonderful parts of Court of Lions are those which take us within the walls of the Alhambra.

The novel moves backwards and forwards between the later years of the 15th century and the present day in which Kate struggles to escape and then confront her past. I enjoyed Kate’s story, particularly her interaction with the modern inhabitants of Granada, a city in which cultural differences still exist. But the heart of the novel, and the source of its greatest pleasure, is in the chapters which carry us back into history. Kate has little connection with this past beyond a sensitivity to the Alhambra’s history – this isn’t a timeslip novel – instead we’re given a sympathetic, atmospheric and elegant portrait of the Alhambra and its people through the centuries, focusing on characters past and present who capture our imagination wonderfully.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Court of Lions by Head of Zeus on 6 July. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.
Court of Lions blog tour poster

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (13 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

City of Masks by SD SykesIt is 1358 and some years have passed since the events chronicled in The Butcher Bird. Oswald de Lacy, the young Lord Somershill, is not the man he once was. He is pursued by demons and they have chased him to Venice where he waits for passage on a vessel to the Holy Land. Pilgrimage is Oswald’s hope but Venice is at war with Hungary and this is keeping all ships in harbour. It’s also not doing much to help the mood in this naturally suspicious and paranoid yet pleasure-loving city. Executions and torture are common, and among the masked gamblers, drinkers and lovers, lurk spies, thieves and murderers.

As the novel begins, we’re not sure what has happened to Oswald to drive him from England in such despair but he’s in need of diversion. But this comes from an unfortunate source. A friend is found murdered outside the house where Oswald is staying and Oswald, who has brought from England a bit of a reputation as being a solver of mysteries, is hired by the dead man’s exceedingly unpleasant grandfather to find the young man’s killer. The pursuit of the murderer throws Oswald into the heart of this lively and misbehaving city of secrets. Most have something to hide. It doesn’t help that the belligerent Venetian authorities have Oswald in their sights – a foreigner asking questions stands out. But Oswald isn’t on his own. His mother has accompanied him to Venice. Oh dear.

City of Masks is S.D. Sykes’ third Somershill Manor mystery and it’s very different from the previous two. The obvious difference is that this novel isn’t set in England but Oswald, our young hero, is not the man he was before, due to tantalising reasons that only become truly known in the second half of the novel. We’ve moved away from the devastating impact of the Black Death on Oswald’s manor and tenants but Oswald is clearly in pain. Discovering the reasons for this adds both power and poignancy to a novel that is also a thoroughly satisfying medieval mystery which throws a curious light on life in Venice during the mid 14th century.

The Venetian setting is marvellous. Its places familiar to us today mix with those lost in history but all are filled with colourful, lovely characters, many of whom are up to no good. There is a theme of religious pilgrimage running through City of Masks but this is skin deep, as shown in the city’s hypocrisy and unkindness to the poor, ill and vulnerable. I loved the descriptions of the waterways and islands of Venice, its palaces, grand houses, prisons and inns. It is richly evocative, both glamorous and seedy, wealthy and squalid. In a way, Oswald himself sums this all up – he might be a lord but he is living on the edge of respectability.

I have to admit that I was wary when I heard that City of Masks would be moved away from its setting in medieval England. Medieval Venice didn’t have the same appeal to me. But I needn’t have worried. S.D. Sykes is such a fine writer who really knows her subject and history and she makes Venice seem so real – a mysterious place in which one can be lost so easily. The mystery is a fascinating and gripping one, even more so because it throws such light on Venetian society at this time. S.D. Sykes is also great with people – I loved the characters in City of Masks. Oswald’s mother drives me mad at times (poor Oswald) but I’m rather glad she came along.

Oswald’s character and story dominate the novel and deservedly so. He is always likeable, flawed though he undoubtedly is, and we care for him. City of Masks works well as a stand alone novel but I think much can be gained for having read the three books in order. Watching Oswald grow from boy to man is well worth doing and a lot of this culminates in City of Masks. I also really enjoyed the way in which the mystery behind Oswald’s troubles is revealed.

I have loved each of the three novels in this wonderful, brilliantly written historical series but, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be City of Masks. From start to finish, it is nothing less than mesmerising and engrossing.

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Plague Land
The Butcher Bird

An Act of Silence by Colette McBeth

Wildfire | 2017 (29 June) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Act of Silence by Colette McBethLinda Moscow gets up in the middle of the night only to be given the shock of her life when she hears the voice of a man sitting in her kitchen. To Linda’s relief, it’s her grown-up son Gabriel but her feelings are mixed. They have an uneasy relationship and it isn’t a surprise to Linda to hear that Gabriel is in trouble again – a woman has been killed and Gabriel has been asked to report to the police station in a few hours. He needs his mother’s help. But is she prepared to help him? Can she believe him when he says he didn’t do it?

And so begins An Act of Silence, one of the most ingenious and brilliantly plotted crime thrillers I’ve read for quite a while. I don’t want to give anything away because I went in knowing very little and it held me gripped. It’s one of those books that, at the beginning, you think you know what you’ve got and perhaps you think it’ll be one of those mother and child psychological thrillers that flood the shelves at the moment. But how wrong you are. It’s true that the relationship between Linda and her son Gabriel is the emotional heart of the novel but there is so much more to it than that.

The novel moves between people and between years. Backwards and forwards it goes and not in a regular pattern. I thought I’d find this confusing but I didn’t at all. It’s done with great flair and skill. Linda isn’t easy to know. She’s closed herself off in many ways and it’s only as time goes by that we realise how deep her story goes. And it goes very deep indeed, right into the midst of something hugely significant and important. So many lives are affected by the events of An Act of Silence.

Colette McBeth draws her characters so well. It’s a running theme that there is good and bad in most people. This adds to the novel’s tension as we try to work out the true nature of some of its characters. There are one or two that are utterly tragic. Sometimes we witness an event from more than one perspective, from another point of view. Very little here is black and white.

I loved Colette McBeth’s previous novel The Life I Left Behind. That book, too, was dominated by beautiful writing and fine characterisation. But An Act of Silence takes that extra step and that’s due, I think, to the brilliance of its plotting. The plot is undoubtedly complex and full of shocks and surprises but the author keeps tight rein on it as it develops. It held me spellbound.

Other review
The Life I Left Behind