Category Archives: Review

The Book of Mirrors by E.O. Chirovici

Century | 2017 (26 January) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Book of Mirrors by EO ChiroviciWhen literary agent Peter Katz receives a submission from hopeful author Richard Flynn, he is hooked. About thirty years ago, while a student at Princeton, Flynn had worked for Joseph Wieder, a famous and charismatic professor of psychology, whose work centred upon the function and meaning of memory. Wieder was murdered in his home in 1987, bludgeoned to death, his papers found lying around him. Flynn had been one of the original suspects in a case that had never been solved. Now, for some reason, Flynn has written a book about what went on all those years ago. The submitted chapters instantly read bestseller to Katz but, even more than that, he is desperate to read more, to discover the revelations that Katz is certain to be found within. Katz is driven to discover the truth.

But what is the truth? In The Book of Mirrors, three figures pick up the narrative baton – first there is Katz reading the Flynn manuscript, then there is journalist John Keller (hired by Katz to pick up the pieces of the story) and, finally, Roy Freeman, a police officer who took part in the original investigation into the Wieder murder. All three have different perspectives and each is separated from events by a large number of years. So, too, are the people and witnesses that they contact. How reliable are they? Can their memories be trusted?

A major theme throughout is the reliability of memory, the forces that can manipulate it, the difficulty of deciphering it, the inevitability of losing it. The centre of it all is, of course, the memory man himself, Professor Joseph Wieder. Ironically, he has been reduced to little more than a memory himself, but in which memory can be found the truth?

The Book of Mirrors is undoubtedly an intriguing and clever mystery but I found that I wasn’t able to engage with it as much as I hoped. The beginning is especially cold, largely due to the narrative style of Flynn’s manuscript which comprises much of the novel’s first third. I really didn’t care for Flynn. But I’m glad to say that the middle third hooked me and this was sealed by the best of all, the final third which is spent in the company of Roy Freeman, a man I cared for very much. But even more dislikeable than Richard Flynn is Professor Wieder and certain other characters I might mention, but won’t.

Despite my detachment from some of the characters and their troubles, once I became hooked I found A Book of Mirrors extremely difficult to put down. Just like Peter Katz, I really wanted to learn what had happened and it is a very good puzzle. I also enjoyed the structure a great deal and loved the idea of one man passing on the story to another. This worked very well. The highlight for me, though, was Roy Freeman, a man who knows better than anyone, even Professor Wieder, the significance of memory.

The Dry by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2016 | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dry by Jane HarperIt’s been twenty years since teenager Aaron Faulk and his father were driven out of the small rural town of Kiewarra, Australia. Faulk is now a Federal Police Investigator of financial crime based in Melbourne. Now and then he meets up with his old mate Luke whenever Luke is visiting the city from Kiewarra but otherwise Faulk’s ties with his old hometown are cut. Until now. A tragedy calls Faulk back. Luke is dead. He killed himself but not before he shot dead in their home his wife Karen and their small son Billy. A note from Luke’s father insists Faulk must return for the funerals, hinting that he knows something about that other tragedy twenty years before. Luke’s father knows that all those years ago Luke and Faulk lied.

Apprehensive about what he might find, Faulk returns to a community devastated by the three deaths and stricken by a terrible drought. The town’s policeman, a newcomer, is doing his best to find out what drove Luke to do what he did but when Faulk offers his help it is gratefully accepted. But the more Faulk digs, the more the past returns to haunt him. And Faulk’s presence is a reminder to the town of their earlier loss. Tension, grief and anger do their worst, and soon Faulk feels a million miles away from his life in Melbourne and he realises that this town has never left him. It’s time for Kiewarra’s secrets to emerge from the shadows.

The Dry isn’t just a crime novel, it’s a vividly painted portrait of a community brought to the edge of despair and ruin by the brutality of man and the devastation of nature. Kiewarra is a farming community facing the reality of no rain, dried up rivers and poverty. In a sense, people can understand why their fellow farmer Luke should have been brought so low but then they remember his wife and innocent child. People want answers but not everyone wants them from Aaron Faulk. Jane Harper’s descriptions of Kiewarra are superb and it infuses the whole novel with a mood and atmosphere that makes The Dry stand out as one of the best crime novels we’ll see this winter. There’s something about reading a fine novel set in such a dry and hot location while huddled under blankets during the winter cold.

The story is cleverly told. Most of the narrative follows Faulk during his visit to Kiewarra when he tries to help the police investigation while at the same time having to endure the stares and insults of the townspeople. But interspersed throughout are flashbacks, covering both the recent crime and the events of twenty years before. This works brilliantly and takes us into the past, bringing it into the present, in such an effective fashion.

Almost everyone in The Dry is given a past and a story. They are all so fascinating to learn and it brings this small place to life. But I also really enjoyed the crime aspect of the novel. It is such a good mystery. There is a real sadness and hopelessness to some aspects of the story and to some of the characters, as well as a foreboding and threat, but this is offset by the beauty of the language, the vastness of the sky and the stark and vivid isolation of the parched Kiewarra. This is a novel to become engrossed in. I didn’t want to put it down at all and was sorry when it came to its excellent conclusion and I had to.

Cover reveal (and a review taster) – The End of the Day by Claire North

Claire North is one of the most exciting and original authors writing today – and if you enjoy science fiction thrillers, or thrillers, or just a very good book, then you’ll have no doubt already met The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch and The Sudden Appearance of Hope. Each time I finish one of these novels, I marvel at Claire North’s imagination, which is vast, and her talent, which is extraordinary, and wonder whatever will come next. This year the answer is The End of the Day, which will be published on 6 April by Orbit. And she’s done it again!

I’m delighted to be involved in the reveal of the cover for The End of the Day. It also gives me an opportunity to tell you something about the book and also do a bit from my review, the rest of which will be posted closer to the publication date. The cover, which is rather fine, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is the excellent work of Duncan Spilling (Little, Brown Book Group).

The End of the Day by Claire North

The blurb
Charlie meets everyone – but only once.
You might meet him in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of traffic accident.
Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets everywhere, our Charlie.
Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says?
Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

Review taster
Charlie hasn’t been in the job long but there is much about it that appeals – the frequent travel all around the world, often to the most unexpected places, the chance to meet a wide variety of people, and good prospects. Because surely the one person guaranteed a long and safe future is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death. But for everyone else there comes an end of the day and there they will meet Death. But, before that, they meet Charlie.

Yet again, with The End of the Day, Claire North proves that there is no limit to her extraordinary imagination and her powers to convey ideas and themes that can stop you in your tracks. As always, at the heart of the novel is a figure very difficult to forget (with the exception, of course, of The Sudden Appearance of Hope) and Charlie is a marvellous creation. He takes his job very seriously indeed, he wants to do a good job, and he welcomes the opportunities it gives him, and his heart is open. Strangely, if there’s one character even more humane that Charlie in this novel it’s Death himself, or herself. When he or she isn’t angry, that is.

Despite the darkness, I was left with such a feeling of warmth and wonderful weirdness from this novel. Its approach to death is compassionate while people are shown to be possible of redemption and the end, when it comes, needn’t be feared. Charlie endures for us all – it’s powerful and very well done. Picking one word to describe Claire North’s novels isn’t easy but if I had to pick one, the word would be ingenious.

Preorder The End of the Day

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Tor | Ebook (17 January 2017); Pb (13 February 2017) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermottFor the newly cloned there is little worse than a posting to the Citadel, a listening outpost located between galaxies, on the very edge of human-inhabited space. So far away is it that time itself has little meaning. There’s no escape. In time, the clone will retire to the desolate desert rock orbited by the Citadel, and there he or she (but mostly he) will farm or contemplate God. If very lucky he will have the comfort of knowing that a piece of his consciousness has transcended, itself cloned to live another, hopefully happier existence far, far away. This seems unlikely for pilot Ensign Ronaldo Aldo II, clone of Aldo I and similarly lacking in empathy and tact. He’s liked by few – his commanding officer hates him – and he is cursed by bad luck. Things always go wrong when Aldo is around and, even though it’s not his fault if his colleagues die, commit suicide or abscond, nobody wants to get too close.

The Fortress at the End of Time follows Aldo through ten years of misery. First Ensign and then Captain, Ronaldo Aldo has much to endure as he learns more and more about the way that the Citadel works. Corruption seeps through the shoddy walls of this stinking rathole. The fact that there are so few women doesn’t help tempers. People remember what life was like before they were cloned and sent out to the Citadel as if they were no more significant than an email attachment. Aldo made mistakes before and it looks like he’s well on the way to repeating them.

The novel moves between the Citadel and the planet below, which is undergoing the slow process of being terraformed. While people on the Citadel live in squalour, the settlers on the planet are barely surviving at all, watched over constantly by a monastery of untrustworthy brothers. Almost everyone fears the return of an alien force that attacked the station lifetimes ago and is for a return of this enemy that the Citadel listens. This gives Aldo purpose but it could also send him mad.

The premise of The Fortress at the End of Time is extremely appealing, as is the title, and parts of the novel deliver on its promise. It is a very compelling read and once you’re immersed it can be hard to extract yourself. The descriptions of the Citadel and the rock below are very well done, contributing to the mood of remoteness, alienation, abandonment and isolation. One way or another not everyone lasts long out here and this adds to the sense of despair that Aldo must endure every day. There is only a small number of characters and they are deployed very well, forming a tight if disjointed circle and intensifying the claustrophobic atmosphere and feel of a small lifeboat hopelessly adrift. Each of the characters stands out well and plays their part in the story, with the possible exception of the monks – they felt comparatively undeveloped and purposeless, even though there was an important place in the novel for them to fill.

There are some interesting issues considered here, mostly to do with sexuality and gender. It is this human element of the story that is developed at the cost of some of the science fiction. I didn’t think that the science and process of cloning were explained clearly enough and almost no time at all was spent on the past war. It’s all left very vague, although it’s quite possible that this was intentional – memory is another theme of the book. How can clones remember the past and what does the past matter when time is meaningless?

My main issue with The Fortress at the End of Time is with its relentless doom and gloom. Aldo is not a cheery character, which is hardly surprising, but he’s also not very likeable (or even likeable at all) and this adds to the general despair of the novel. There is some lightness – love and families – but conditions are so hard that love doesn’t often fare well. Aldo certainly does his best to do it harm. There is a religious element which isn’t fully explored in the novel and so, when it rears its head later in the book very unexpectedly, it rather felt like I’d been bludgeoned with it. If there are answers here, I can’t agree with them.

This is a short (about 300 pages) and fast read and, as I mentioned, it is an immersive one. The Fortress at the End of Time is full of premise and promise but not all of it delivers, creating issues that are exacerbated by the unremitting gloom and negativity. There were lots of elements that I enjoyed and it is most certainly an intriguing novel but my mood was dark when I put it down for the final time.

Sirens by Joseph Knox

Doubleday | 2017 (12 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sirens by Joseph KnoxThe streets of Manchester have their dark secrets and nobody is better placed to hunt them out than disgraced detective Aidan Waits. Waits hovers between the police world and the city’s shadows of crime, ironically finding himself useful to both. He can go where others can’t. He wears his desperation and addictions like a coat. Never trusting or trustworthy himself, Aidan Waits looks like he can be bought.

David Rossiter MP has a problem. His teenage daughter Isabelle has disappeared into the underworld and he wants Aidan Waits to find her and bring her back, keeping the scandal at bay. Superintendent Parrs has an ulterior motive for sending Waits undercover. It is ten years since a young mother went missing and Parrs is sure that both cases have an awful lot to do with local crime lord Zain Carver. Waits is perfectly placed to enter Carver’s world. And it is there that he will find both sweetness and pain in the company of Carver’s sirens.

And what a dangerous world it is. Joseph Knox takes us deep into the depths of Manchester’s crime scene and it is a place where night rules over day, where hours lose their meaning, where drugs are power and Carver is king. We see it all through the eyes of Aidan Waits as he takes us into the Carver lair of bars, nightclubs and parties. It is a frightening place, inhabited by damaged people, some ritually scarred, others hiding under names that aren’t theirs, and this isn’t helped by the filter of haze over Waits’ eyes. But there is also something gentler and kinder for Waits to discover – the sirens who do Carver’s bidding yet still retain the light. They are all the more dangerous for it.

Sirens is such a powerful read. It is undoubtedly very dark but it is darkly beautiful. The writing is stunning and there is real feeling in Aidan’s struggles to dig deep into himself, to find an ability to care. The sirens themselves are tragically alluring, surrounded by monsters, giants and demons, many of which are at war. This is a book very well named indeed. The setting of the Manchester underworld is brilliantly drawn and it is evocative throughout.

Our relationship to Aidan Waits is complicated. This is hardly surprising as Aidan struggles with himself. And he is, without doubt, a fallen man and a corrupt policeman. But in this world so few are without blame. This does mean that our sympathies are torn in all sorts of directions.

Sirens is a very clever novel, all the more remarkable for being a debut. You’d never guess. At times I found it relentlessly bleak but the story is never less than compelling and emotionally involving. An extraordinary debut from such a talented writer.

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson

Faber & Faber | 2017 (12 January) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Her Every Fear by Peter SwansonKate Priddy has had a terrible, traumatic experience but now she is ready to seize back her life, leave her parents’ house and their protection and venture back out into the world. A golden opportunity comes from a cousin she has never met. Corbin Dell wants to visit London for six months and so he proposes a flat swap – while he stays in Kate’s small London flat, Kate can live in his grand apartment on Beacon Hill in Boston. Kate welcomes the opportunity to return to her art studies, this time in a new and exciting location, and so, despite the misgivings of her anxious parents, Kate sets off to start a new life.

But if anyone could be described as unlucky it’s Kate Priddy. On arrival in the apartment block, she sees someone pounding on a neighbour’s door. And the next day the police turn up, announcing that the unimaginable has happened – Kate’s neighbour Audrey Marshall has been murdered and mutilated. The whole building is thrown into turmoil and, when it is discovered that Kate’s cousin Corbin was having a secret relationship with Audrey, Kate begins to fear the worst. Did Corbin murder Audrey and then flee to London? But this is an apartment block full of secrets, dark corners and prying eyes. And Kate has caught their attention.

I read Peter Swanson’s previous novel, The Kind Worth Killing, while on holiday last year and I could not put it down. It stands out as being one of the most twisted, dark and compelling reads I had in 2015. As a result, I had high hopes for Her Every Fear.

While I didn’t find it quite as addictive as The Kind Worth Killing, there is a lot going for Her Every Fear. It has an extremely clever plot and, as in its predecessor, the author skilfully moves between perspectives, giving more than one interpretation or viewing of a scene. The result is often extremely and deliciously creepy as we (and the main character) are lulled into a false sense of security before we are faced with the stark reality of what is actually happening. The difference between appearance and reality is brilliantly dealt with by Peter Swanson and the shocks really do shock.

The mood of the novel is grim and there is true evil walking through these pages, hiding among the normal, and I think I did feel rather oppressed by it at times. But that is most definitely my fault rather than the book’s. This is the type of crime thriller to make you suspicious of everyone, to find evil everywhere – even the cat acts guilty. Peter Swanson is such an original and gifted writer of dark and twisty tales, of worlds in which evil stands right before our eyes and dares us to recognise it.