Category Archives: America

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2017 (13 July) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser CollardIt is 1861 and Jack Lark has turned his back on the British army after hard years fighting campaigns in Europe, Crimea and India. It’s a sad sense of duty and responsibility that drives Jack to Boston in the United States – Thomas Kearney, a comrade from the French Foreign Legion, never felt able to send his letters back to his family in America while alive but, since his death in battle, in Jack’s arms, it’s now fallen to Jack to do it for him. And so Jack arrives at the door of the wealthy and influential Kearney family in Boston and it’s there he is given new purpose.

War is imminent between the Union and Confederation – volunteers are joining both sides in their thousands. Samuel Kearney is a leading figure behind the scenes for the Unionists and his younger son Robert, as expected, has enlisted as a lieutenant in its army. But Kearney is under no illusion. Charming he might be, but Robert is not a natural soldier and the army he will fight in is untrained and untested. Samuel Kearney has no wish to lose another son to war and so he makes Jack an offer that is hard to refuse – Jack will become a sergeant in Robert’s Company and will be paid to do two jobs: to give the Company the benefit of his experience and skill and, above all else, to keep Robert safe. Elizabeth, Robert’s beautiful sister, adds her pleas to her father’s and she is not easy to turn down. It seems that Jack will also be fighting alongside Elizabeth’s fiancé Captain Ethan Rowell. That could prove to be as much a trial for Jack as facing the Confederates across a battlefield.

The Jack Lark series is one of my very favourites and it’s been a joy (albeit at times an anxious pleasure) to follow Jack’s exploits over the last few years. The novels differ in mood as Jack takes on a succession of different enemies in some of the most famous conflicts of the mid 19th century. In the past Jack has stolen identities and ranks, fighting as an officer under a false name, but his courage and military prowess have never been less than true. But there has been something of the loveable rogue about Jack and this is borne out in some of his exploits and relationships – of which there have been a fair few. But in The True Soldier, the sixth in the series, we have a very different Jack Lark.

Jack now fights as himself and he is no longer an officer. There is no cause left that he wishes to fight for. He is purposeless and his soul is bruised and hardened. But he discovers something of the old Jack Lark in this new challenge in a country that he knows very little about. He learns about the Union cause, the origins of the Civil War, and the drive to rid the United States of slavery. There is much for Jack to believe in, although it’s not that straightforward. Rich Union families, including the Kearneys, employ black servants and the divide between master and servant goes way beyond differences in social standing and wealth. Paul Fraser Collard informs us about all this through the wonderful medium of Rose, Elizabeth’s maid. Rose is a very intriguing and enigmatic character and is a refreshing change from some of the other women that Jack Lark has been drawn to in the past.

In these novels, Paul Fraser Collard never flinches from portraying the true horror of Victorian war and The True Soldier is no different. The American Civil War is shown to be particularly brutal due in part to the contrasting naivety of the American population. The Civil War is only just beginning and soldiers are being seen off with parades, flowers and kisses. Members of Washington’s society drive out in their carriages to watch the first ‘proper’ battle of the war with their picnics. But Jack knows what war is like and he’s proven right here time after time after time, and always in graphic technicolour. Some of the battle sequences are painful to read as men line up to face one another and then shoot. There’s nothing glamorous here about war or Jack’s role in it. It’s angry and bloody. But it never goes too far. Paul Fraser Collard is never gratuitous in his descriptions of battle. You know from what is implied that the reality would have been unimaginably worse.

I’ve always been interested in the American Civil War and I was delighted to hear that the author was sending Jack overseas to experience it. It works well that Jack is placed at the very beginning of the conflict. It means we can watch people change – both those who fought and those who spectated. Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with the Battle of Bull Run and it is brilliantly depicted. Jack Lark might be a fictional character but his role in the conflict seems real and likely, just another of the many immigrants who filled the army’s ranks.

The True Soldier both informs and entertains as, I believe, all good historical fiction should. This novel made me want to do more research on the events it depicts while also immersing me in the more intimate stories of Jack, Elizabeth, Robert, Ethan and Rose – and O’Dowd. I mustn’t forget O’Dowd. This is such a strong series and, while I have such a soft spot for The Maharajah’s General, I do believe The True Soldier could be among the best. I cannot wait to find out what happens next because surely this novel marks a new beginning for this fantastic hero, Jack Lark. As such, if you want to read it as a stand alone novel, then you certainly can.

Disclaimer: Paul Fraser Collard is, I’m honoured to say, a friend of mine. But this in no way affects the honesty of this review. Paul just happens to write great books.

Other reviews and posts
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

HarperCollins | 2017 (29 June) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Corner by Dean KoontzJane Hawk used to be a well-respected FBI agent and investigator. She also had a happy marriage to Nick, a full colonel in the army at only 32 years old, with whom she had Travis, a happy 5-year-old child who is already a vision of his father. But then Nick killed himself, completely unexpectedly, during the course of an ordinary, peaceful evening. His note ‘I very much need to be dead’ left far more questions than answers and so, reeling from guilt and confusion, Jane sets out to find out what it was that drove her husband to a death he greeted with open arms.

Jane discovers that the suicide rate among successful and seemingly happy and high-achieving individuals is on the increase and those who did leave notes, and not many did, left notes even stranger than Nick’s. As Jane investigates the connection between these men and women and their deaths, she discovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the American establishment and she uncovers something remarkable and utterly deadly. Jane is a hunted woman. Those she seeks will stop at nothing to destroy her and her young son. And there is nothing they can’t do. It will take all of Jane’s ingenuity and experience as a gifted FBI agent to conceal her trail while seeking out the truth. Every day she plans as if it will be her last.

In The Silent Corner, Dean Koontz introduces us to a new series of thrillers, this time featuring Jane Hawk. While this means that not all of our questions about Jane herself are answered in this opening novel, we are still presented with a standalone investigation and cat and mouse hunt that obsesses Jane through these pages. There is no let up in the tension at all as Jane removes herself from all distractions, including her beloved son, to pursue her husband’s killer. This is a chilling portrait of grief. She can’t allow herself to stop and think. Instead she unties the knots, one at a time, of Nick’s sad and tragic loss.

Jane’s grief has altered her. She would be the first to admit it. And we see its effects in her treatment of those she encounters along her journey. She doesn’t want to kill or hurt but she will if she has to and when she does have to she has not regrets. The scenes in which she confronts those involved in the conspiracy are powerfully painted and disturbing, but the most disturbing moments are those when we see something of what these people have done with their wealth and influence.

The Silent Corner is a tense and action-packed conspiracy thriller. It is also cold, its language clever and unusual, stark but also elegant at times. I found Jane extremely difficult to warm to but I don’t think we’re expected to care for her beyond our compassion for someone suffering such a loss. There are moments when she lets slip her guard and it’s those moments which I enjoyed the most, when she draws people to her by revealing her true nature. Dougal Trahern, a man we meet later on, has a similar way about him and his portrayal is drawn with great poignancy and care. And so our feelings are challenged through this novel. Its premise promises cold killing and science but in reality we are presented with people who are suffering greatly and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow men and women. There is a strong sense of service and loyalty in The Silent Corner.

My only issue with The Silent Corner would be that at times its language feels a little over the top and this distracts from Jane’s character and the plot. It makes the novel feel overlong on occasions. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and, on the whole, I found myself immersed in The Silent Corner, willing Jane on while always fearing the worst. I’m interested to see how the series will develop as Jane moves away from this defining opening case.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

Quercus | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy MejiaPine Valley, a small rural community in Minnesota, will not be the same without Hattie Hoffman. The 18-year-old girl, beautiful and playful, is the centre of attention both in and out of school. With ambitions of heading off to New York City to follow her dream to be an actress, Hattie has landed the role of Lady Macbeth in the school play. All eyes will be on Hattie Hoffman. But on opening night, Hattie is stabbed to death in a derelict barn on the edge of town. Close family friend Sheriff Del Goodman is given the terrible task of unravelling the tragedy, of hunting down the murderer of a girl he loved as a daughter. This is a community where everybody knows everyone. One of them, though, is keeping the biggest secret of all. Del will not rest until he uncovers it.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman might begin with Hattie’s murder but this vibrant young woman remains at the heart of the book thanks to its enticing structure. Mindy Mejia presents us with three narratives, belonging to Hattie herself, Del Goodman, and the school’s English teacher and play director, Peter Lund. We also move backwards and forwards through time, focusing on the weeks and days that led to Hattie’s death. Each of the narratives introduces us to the people of the town, often from different perspectives, building up layers of relationships, bits of which are revealed at different times. This gives extra depth to quite a few of the novel’s characters while building up the layers of Hattie’s personality. Hanging over it all is foreboding – we know just how this will end for Hattie.

Hattie’s character is key to the novel. And it most certainly isn’t straightforward. All she wants to do is be an actress, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as she plays one person off against another, time after time. She is an intriguing person, and so too are Del and Peter, but I did find her impossible to like. In fact, I think the only character in the novel that I actively did like was the sheriff, Del Goodman. I enjoyed his sections of the novel most of all.

I was engrossed by The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman but, as the novel went on, I realised that it might not give me all I expected from it. I’m used to twists and surprises in a novel such as this. This isn’t a fault of this book at all but it did mean that I was rather unexcited by the way in which the story developed, while still being caught up by its structure and mood.

The writing is of a high quality and that did keep my attention, as did its atmosphere. The rural location is very well painted indeed. I could picture Pine Valley perfectly from the descriptions. There are few places that people can meet in this town and we move between them, always being reminded that we’re seeing the same people. It makes you understand why Hattie had her dreams of escape. Pine Valley was far too small a town for Hattie Hoffman.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Raven Books | 2017 (12 January) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

The River at Night by Erica FerencikWin Allen is struggling. After the death of her brother and an unhappy divorce, she wants to keep the world firmly locked outside. She sees danger everywhere and her fear and sadness are almost crippling. But when her old friend Pia proposes a white-water rafting adventure in the Maine wilderness, Win is torn. An adventure, particularly THIS type of adventure, is the last thing she wants but this is a chance to re-bond with Pia and their two dear friends, Rachel and Sandra. Time has flown since they last met up and so much has happened to each of them in the interim. Win can’t help but think that if she doesn’t go she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. She’s wrong about that.

And so begins an adventure of a lifetime for Win, Pia, Rachel and Sandra. A time to chat around campfires and put their worlds to rights, to try something new, maybe flirt a little with their young handsome guide Rory, all within this most stunning Maine scenery. None of them could have imagined it would be so beautifully remote, so far away from the cares of daily life. So far from help.

The River at Night is one of those novels that hooks its claws into you almost immediately. It’s not a long novel, at about 300 pages, and so I would recommend that you try to read it in as few a sittings as possible. I read it in two over twenty-four hours and this really intensified its mood and atmosphere, immersing me not only in the wonderful descriptions of the wilderness and the river but also in the horror and terror of it all. The two complement each other perfectly, with Erica Ferencik doing such a fine job of creating the perfect setting for danger and menace and then fulfilling that promise completely.

The novel brings together a range of styles – travel, adventure, buddies, crime, thriller and horror – and it’s a recipe that works very well. Win narrates the story and seeing its developments through her eyes adds so much to the mood. She is an intriguing character – flawed, timid, scared, suspicious – and that’s even before they set foot on the boat. But Win is capable of surprising herself and us. We also learn about the other characters through Win and it’s like peeling an onion of its layers of skin. Sandra, in particular, is fascinating. There are surprises through the book and some take the breath away, they are so unexpected.

It’s clear from the outset that something is going to go badly wrong and the tension builds page by page. I did not want to put it down. As much horror as thriller, this tense, fast and very well-written novel has put me off camping and rivers for a long, long time!

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of The River at Night on 12 January.

River at Night blog tour poster

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker

Twenty7 | 2016 | 360p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Tall Oaks by Chris WhitakerTall Oaks used to be such a quiet small American town, unknown to strangers. But then, one terrible day, three-year-old Harry Monroe was stolen from his bed and the country’s media came to call. Three months have passed and Harry is still missing. Harry’s mother Jess is traumatised. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the clown masked-face of the man who stole him. Although the reporters have moved on to the next big story, the detective in charge of the case, Jeff, can’t stop caring, desperate to give the boy back to his distraught mother.

But life has to continue and Tall Oaks is full of busy lives. Teenager Manny sees himself at the centre of much of it and is setting about proving it in his own inimitable style, while trying to ignore the fact that his mother has begun dating again. Jerry is a photographer in the making, a trapped spirit, but his life is tied down to his domineering, awful mother. And moving around them is a circle of family and friends, all interacting, all with their own cares, all finding laughs where they can, and all with their secrets.

At this point I have to say that Tall Oaks is a fantastic novel and all the more brilliant when you consider that it’s Chris Whitaker’s debut. I believe he lives in England and yet he has created a portrait of an American small town that doesn’t just feel real but is also absolutely enchanting – a wonderful blend of the authentic and the strange. Whitaker also blends its mood. This is a story that is at times desperately sad and shockingly tragic but there is also a warm humour that runs through it. Its wit sparkles, especially in the dialogue and in its creation of Manny. If you have to have one reason why you need to read this novel it’s Manny. He might be out to shock but a heart that huge cannot be hidden.

Tall Oaks is another of those novels that is promoted for its shocking twists and, yet again, this does this wonderful book a disservice. There’s a crime in it – the abduction of little Harry – but this is just one part of the story. There are so many other elements to it and it is driven as much by character as it is plot, if not more so. There are some powerful surprises, hardly surprising in a community so private, and one or two stunned me. They felt to me as if they were my reward for growing to care so much for these people. This is what happens when you get to know somebody.

Chris Whitaker is a marvellous, witty writer. His prose feels light and real, flowing naturally, and his gift for characterisation is just wonderful. The character of Manny is a masterpiece. He is complicated for all kinds of reasons that are explored with an astonishingly delicate touch. He is a pure delight to know and how he made me laugh! But there’s more to this novel than Manny. It gives and gives. Tall Oaks also begins with one of the most disturbing opening chapters I’ve read and it continues with writing that made me want to cry and laugh.

I’ve got to say it again – this is a debut novel. Extraordinary. Whatever will be next? But Chris Whitaker is a new author whose future books I will be sure to snap up at the earliest opportunity.

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree | Greg Iles | 2015 | Harper | 850p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Tree by Greg IlesNext spring Mississippi Blood is published. This is the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As part of the celebrations, I was so pleased to post a review of Natchez Burning for an international blog tour back at the end of August and now it’s the turn of The Bone Tree. The Bone Tree follows on directly from Natchez Burning and so this review assumes you’ve read the earlier book first.

Penn Cage, attorney and Mayor of Natchez, a small town in rural Mississippi, continues to hunt for his father Dr Tom Cage, the town’s popular doctor for many years, who is now on the run for the murder of Viola Turner. This elderly black woman was once, in the sixties, Tom Cage’s much loved nurse. She was also the sister of a man brutally murdered by the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and she suffered greatly at their hands. Everyone involved is now much, much older and some are in the mood to confess before death claims them. Journalists Henry Sexton and Caitlin Masters (also, just to complicate things, Penn’s fiancée) are working together to expose the truth, and one of the best ways to do that will be to discover and reveal one of the Double Eagles’ killing grounds, hidden within the Mississippi swamps – the Bone Tree. Legend has it that the Bone Tree contains, in addition to the bones of the murdered, evidence that links these men to one of the most devastating and notorious crimes in American history.

The plot of The Bone Tree is a complicated business, as you’d expect from a novel that comprises 850 pages and one that also succeeds the equally substantial Natchez Burning, one of the most satisfyingly structured and richly layered crime novels I’ve read. There are multiple threads and many characters and we move between them – there can be a fair few chapters before we return to each strand – but at the heart of the novel we have Caitlin’s pursuit of the truth, Penn’s hunt for his father and Tom’s struggle to survive at as little cost to the lives of others as possible. All set within a fascinating re-examination of a dark period in Mississippi’s history, one that might not be as safely buried in the past as one might have hoped.

But The Bone Tree differs from Natchez Burning in that there is another investigation on top of all of the rest and for long stretches of the novel it takes precedence over anything else – FBI Special Agent John Kaiser’s investigation into one of the biggest crimes of modern American history. For the time being, the Double Eagles will have to wait.

There are sections of The Bone Tree that are utterly harrowing, tense or thrilling – or all three of these at once. There are moments here I’m not going to forget, there is one in particular that is totally shocking. But these sections are surrounded by great swathes of meticulously detailed discussion into the big, arguably unsolved, mystery of the 1960s. I’d argue that The Bone Tree contains within it a superb, much shorter novel but this, and the pace, has been lost to some degree by the material that surrounds it.

The events of the novel take place over a period of just a few short days and the events of each are described over hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, my interest was kept alive throughout because, despite it all, the evil of the Double Eagles and their terrible deeds can still be traced through the pages. Tom and Penn continue to focus on their crimes, refusing to be sidetracked by Kaiser’s ulterior motives, and Caitlin’s pursuit for the truth is absolutely dedicated, but the author’s fascination with Kaiser’s investigations takes precedence far too often, in my opinion, for the flow of the novel.

This is an extraordinary trilogy, welcoming the reader to become fully immersed in its portrait of evil, focusing on events that took place over just a few days. The conclusion of The Bone Tree is so tense and gripping that it left this reader so excited for the concluding novel Mississippi Blood. It sounds as if this final novel will be half the size of its predecessors which makes me think that its focus will be narrowed further and this time the emphasis will be on the answers we are all so desperate to learn.

Other review
Natchez Burning