Category Archives: Review

After Anna by Alex Lake

After Anna | Alex Lake | 2015 | Harper | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book

After Anna by Alex LakeIn a quiet town in Cheshire, a five-year-old girl is snatched from the school gates, disappearing into thin air, her teachers distracted and her mother just a few minutes late to collect her. The mother, Julia, knows that she will never be able to forgive herself for those few late minutes for the rest of her life, and neither will her husband, Brian. The town, led by the police, unites to hunt for Anna. No stone is left unturned. Meanwhile, Julia falls to pieces, as does her marriage. The lost girl is irresistable to the press and social media and they need someone to blame. They settle on Julia, the mother who arrived at the school too late to save her child and is unable to cope with the consequences. Julia, alone, faces complete desolation.

But After Anna is no usual tale of a lost child. We know before we begin that Anna will return and she does, hardly able to remember a thing that happened to her, the mystery as mysterious ever, leaving Julia happy but anxious. The nightmare for Julia has not ended, in fact it has barely begun.

I am very hard to please with psychological thrillers, usually because I couldn’t care less for the people in them. I Let you Go by Clare Mackintosh is the obvious exception to the rule and now, with After Anna, there is another.

After Anna is addictive. I picked it up to see how I got on with it and when I put it down I was well over half of the way through it. The following morning I didn’t shift until I had finished. It wasn’t just the mystery of how it would end that drove me – although this is ridiculously compelling, it was my care for Julia. Alex Lake is such a good writer. Julia’s thoughts are exposed before us. She allows us in and it’s not long at all before we feel deeply for this poor caring woman, whom, it seems, the world itself is conspiring against. Julia never feels anything less than real.

Alex Lake captures the horror of losing a child. These pages are hard to read as we feel Julia’s suffering and share her worry for her small, lovable daughter. But that’s just part of the novel. After Anna is also perfectly structured and wonderfully clever. It moves from fraught and emotional to thrilling and harrowing. The sense of loss is replaced by tension and fear.

After Anna is a novel that surprises and thrills. It is immensely hard to put down – as compelling as it is clever and as tense as it is emotional. Without doubt, this is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read and it makes me determined to stick with a genre that does, unfortunately, so often disappoint. I heartily recommend it. Alex Lake is a pseudonym and I am very intrigued to know the name of the author behind it. I would be delighted to add more of her (I’m assuming it’s a her) books to the reading pile.

If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If You Go Away | Adele Parks | 2015 | Headline | 477p | Bought copy | Buy the book

If You Go Away by Adele ParksIn the spring of 1914, Vivian Foster had little to worry about other than the cut of her dress, the fullness of her dance card and the moment at which her beau Nathaniel will choose to pop the highly anticipated and much expected question. But all that is about to change when Vivian, one of the most beautiful and charming girls of her season, makes a foolish mistake. Stricken with embarrassment and with little money in the family coffers, Vivian’s parents urgently seek out a suitable husband for their wayward daughter. Aubrey Owens is perfect. A quiet man whose family only recently made their fortune, Aubrey would never have presumed to chase such a catch but now she is caught without him having to raise a finger. Vivian and Aubrey marry on the day that the Great War breaks out. It seems fitting to Vivian that on this day of compromise the rest of Britain should be distracted, their attention focused elsewhere.

Howard Henderson is a celebrated playwright, leading a charmed, fashionable life in London when war breaks out. But then, for the first time in his life, Howard understands that he is different from everyone else, that he has principles he didn’t quite expect to find and that he will pay the ultimate price for them if he has to. Howard does not want to fight. He has no religious grounds not to, he simply doesn’t want to kill or be killed. But Howard, like most conscientious objectors, is no coward. He travels to France as a journalist to record life and death on the Front for a year. The appalling horrors that he sees, smells and feels change his life forever. He returns to England determined never to be a part of this war, no matter the cost. Until he meets Vivian, the young wife who lives alone in the grand house in his mother’s village while her officer husband makes a name for himself in the throes of war. These two young people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Together they stand a chance. If only the war and society will allow it.

If You Go Away is, without doubt, one of the most enchanting and captivating novels that I’ve read in a long time. The wonderful author leads us in gently, almost under false pretences, as we are introduced to the vain and privileged Vivian. But it’s easy to forget how young she is when her dreams revolve around making the perfect marriage. When her plans all go awry we slowly get to know another Vivian, one with few friends, a family that has lost all interest in her, and a husband who might admire his wife’s beauty but values her little more than he does any other attractive possession. Not that he is to blame for this any more than Vivian was to blame for her self-obsession – Aubrey and Vivian are the products of their time and that time is changing.

If You Go Away alternates between the stories of Vivian and Howard, chapter by chapter, but if you were to ask me which of the two narratives I preferred, I would not be able to answer. I loved both of these people, more and more as we get to know them better, as the war closes in around them, as they mature and learn what they want, as they love the people who need them, as they face the harsh morality of society and the utterly monstrous reality of war. The novel cleverly and movingly changes as the the years of war progress until the reader is completely wrapped up in the lives of Vivian and Howard, and those closest to them, including Aubrey.

The contrast between life on Vivian’s country estate and death in the trenches of France is powerfully evoked within these pages. Adele Parks treats them both with deep empathy and care. I was moved to tears repeatedly as this novel worked its magic on me. I wanted to do nothing but read it. The writing is beautiful, deceptively light in places, harrowing and tragic in others. I devoured If You Go Away one glorious weekend and, on finishing it, I immediately went out and bought Spare Brides. Adele Parks is a stunning storyteller and I am so glad she has turned her considerable talent to historical fiction. All I can do is ask for more.

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermott

The Revelation Code | Andy McDermott | 2015 | Headline | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Revelation Code by Andy McDermottThere are few things in the booky world more guaranteed to put a smile on my face than a brand new Nina and Eddie thriller from Andy McDermott! I adore this series and I have done ever since I read the first, The Hunt for Atlantis, way back when. Ever since, I have latched on to each of these books as they emerge like a leech. They never disappoint but they certainly do thrill, stagger, shock and entertain by the barrel. There is no end to the mischief that husband and wife team Eddie Chase and Nina Wilde can get in to; no archaeological mystery is safe; and if X marks the spot you can bet that that’s where you’ll also find Nina and Eddie, no doubt looking a bit battered. The Revelation Code is the eleventh full-length novel in the series and it came as no surprise at all that it is every bit as excellent as Kingdom of Darkness that preceded it, and all the ones that came before that.

All of these books can be read in any order you like – the mysteries are self-contained – but throughout the series runs the story of Nina and Eddie. Knowing the background, while not essential, definitely makes these books even more addictive. By this stage we are hopelessly invested in Nina and Eddie’s relationship, particularly now that things are becoming even more complicated. This review assumes that you are not meeting Nina and Eddie for the first time.

Several years ago, CIA military agents on a secret mission in Iraq uncovered the remains of an ancient temple in the desert. Hidden deep within it was a small winged statue – an angel. It was almost destroyed and from it emerged the forces of death. One man who held the angel in his hands and survived had no doubt at all. The statue was one of the four angels of the apocalypse mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. The power that one can unleash is staggering and awful, but the four combined could destroy humanity. Elders in biblical times hid the angels around the ancient world, for their protection and for that of the Earth. But now there is a man who will make it his life’s work to unite all four angels and unleash hell. In the present day, the man has become the Prophet, surrounded by many devoted followers. He is now in a position in which he can hunt out the remaining statues. But, although he has the resources, he doesn’t have the knowledge. He knows where to get it, though. Nina Wilde, the world’s most famous archaeologist, will do everything he tells her to, especially if Eddie’s life depends on it.

And what follows is an utterly thrilling rollercoaster of a hunt and chase across Europe and the Middle East. Nina and Eddie are completely driven, not just to find the angels but also to stop whatever plan the Prophet has in mind. The stakes are high – not just the future of the world, but, more to the point, the future of their own little family. Nina is pregnant and there is no power on heaven or earth that Eddie will allow to endanger his wife and offspring. It’s fair to say that Eddie is dedicated. And so is Nina. She might have hormone issues but she knows where to channel them when the need arises. It is true that she was getting a little tetchy and bored just putting her feet up.

The adventure is an exhilarating ride. The pages race through the fingers as we travel around the world, visiting some archaeological sites and museums that never quite know what hit them. Andy McDermott is great at presenting car/boat/plane chases and we get a host of them here. The extreme action is matched by the humour. Few people can pun like Eddie can pun, and few people could put up with it as well as Nina can. But alongside the humour there is also darkness and I love this side to the Nina and Eddie series. People we’re attached to can die, there are no guarantees that everything will work out, and Nina and Eddie are not invincible. You can count on a few tears being shed in one of these novels and The Revelation Code is no exception.

Nina and Eddie aren’t the only people to keep our attention in The Revelation Code. The baddie is suitably appalling but his followers are an interesting bunch, combining the evil and the innocent. There are also people we’ve met before, including, most entertainingly, Professor Maureen Rothschild, an archaeologist who disagrees entirely with Nina’s way of excavating (ie, with explosives instead of trowels and brushes).

This is such a strong series and I can never get enough of it. The Revelation Code is a fine addition to it, combining a great plot and mystery with a new phase in Eddie and Nina’s relationship. I cannot wait to see what happens next. Nothing will be the same again.

Other reviews
Temple of the Gods
The Valhalla Prophecy
Kingdom of Darkness
The Shadow Protocol (or The Persona Protocol)

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams

The Edge of the Fall | Kate Williams | 2015 | Orion | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Edge of the Fall by Kate WilliamsThe Edge of the Fall follows directly on from last year’s The Storms of War. If you don’t want to know what happened in the first book then please stop here. The repercussions of The Storms of War are keenly felt in The Edge of the Fall.

The First World War is over and life will never be the same for the de Witt family. While daughter Celia volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and her brother Michael lost his life fighting for the British, the family’s German roots cast a shadow over the de Witts that will last far longer than the years of war. Michael’s father Rudolph was interred for the duration, his wife Verena, humiliated, aged beyond her years while waiting for his return. Now that the war is over, Celia cannot return to her previous life. No longer a child, she wants to move away from the family country home of Stoneythorpe and live in London, with her sister and brother-in-law if she has to, and keep alive the flame within her that was lit during the Great War.

Excitement comes to Stoneythorpe in the unexpected arrival from abroad of the de Witt’s eldest son, Arthur, a stranger barely there through The Storms of War. About the same time, Louisa, an orphaned niece and heiress arrives. It seems inevitable that the glamorous Arthur and the beautiful sad Louisa should turn to each other. Celia can do little else but watch, envy and feel more isolated than ever. This is a family with secrets, some revealed in The Storms of War, with more to emerge. Celia feels like her little life is in danger of losing all meaning entirely. In London she believes she can find herself. But life is about to make another leap into uncertainty and chaos – while Celia’s own future is to take an entirely unpredictable path. There is also another great scandal on the horizon, this time involving Arthur and Louisa. War changed everything for the de Witts and it seems that peace time will be no less dangerous.

The Storms of War was one of my favourite historical fiction reads of 2014 – I love a good saga set during the First World War and early decades of the 20th century (I am a Downton nut, after all). It’s one of those transitional periods that draws me in – the end of one world, the emergence of the next, and a particularly testing time for women whose roles (at least for the wealthy) were in a state of flux. Of course, life would have gone on much as usual for poor women, except minus a son or a husband. I was so pleased to read The Edge of the Fall and return to the world – and characters – that Kate Williams has recreated so invitingly.

The Edge of the Fall focuses on a great mystery involving Louisa but the main character is Celia. We spend much of the novel in her company, away from Stoneythorpe when she can manage it, visiting her relatives in a much altered Germany and creating an independent life in London, one that attracts more than its own fair share of scandal. Much of the drama, though, is preserved for Louisa and Arthur, and a considerable portion of the novel moves from Celia’s story to Louisa’s, moving back and forth through events, providing another perspective to Celia’s sometimes prejudiced or subjective version of events. As the stories in both narratives merge, they culminate in an intriguing and tense final third of the novel, that none of the characters could have imagined at its opening.

Arguably, The Edge of the Fall is missing the most significant element that made The Storms of War such a compelling and emotional read – the Great War. Although the war continues to overshadow lives, its absence is felt. Celia and Michael’s experiences on the front were vital parts of the previous novel but now Celia’s unhappiness and inability to settle seem much more childish and selfish. For the first half of the novel at least Celia is not as likeable as she was before and this, combined with missing the drama of the war, did affect my response to The Edge of the Fall. As a result, the pace is significantly slower, particular in the middle. I had no time at all for Arthur. It’s impossible not to feel something for Louisa (and Celia’s poor parents), but it’s clear from the outset that the cloud hanging over her head will never shift. I found the interlude in Germany fascinating, however, and Celia’s mix of German and English heritage is a theme I look forward to seeing develop in the next novel.

Kate Williams is obviously a successful historian but she is also, in her fiction, a fine observer of behaviour and character. While Celia might irritate on occasion there is no doubt that she feels very alive on the page, as do the novel’s locations, especially London of the early 1920s, a time that might have been roaring for some but definitely not for all – especially not for the de Witts. This is an attractive series and, although this book, for me, fell short of the first, I will be interested to see what happens in the next.

Other review
The Storms of War

A Year of Ravens by a selection of authors of Roman historical fiction

A Year of Ravens | 2015 | Knight Media | 483p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Year of RavensLast year I was captivated by A Day of Fire, an anthology of shortish stories by several authors which focused on one event in history – the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. I’m not a huge fan of short stories or novellas but this book presented a formula that completely worked, helped along by the fact that the authors included some of the best writers of Roman historical fiction. I was so pleased to hear that this year there was to be another anthology, A Year of Ravens. Its focus is on another key event in Roman history – this time in Romano-British history – Boudica’s rebellion in AD 61.

A Year of Ravens comprises seven stories, each of which takes about 45 minutes to read (according to my one-step-away-from-the-grave kindle): The Queen by Stephanie Dray; The Slave by Ruth Downie; The Tribune by Russell Whitfield; The Druid by Vicky Alvear Shecter; The Son by S.J.A. Turney; The Warrior by Kate Quinn; The Daughters by E. Knight. There is also an Epilogue by Stephanie Dray, which brings the story to a fitting close, and an introduction by Ben Kane (not included in my review copy).

The novel, similarly to A Day of Fire, focuses on a small number of individuals who come and go through all of the stories. This is extraordinarily effective. The book might present the story of Boudica in a broadly chronological structure but this technique gives the collection a cohesion and three-dimensional quality that works perfectly. Occasionally, we revisit the same event more than once, watching it from different perspectives, angles, and even from opposing sides of the conflict. The principal event is, of course, the infamous flogging of Boudica and the raping of her two young daughters. We are reminded of this pivotal atrocity throughout. It focuses the minds of so many of the main figures of the novel. It overshadows many of the actions that follow it with the result that events such as the sacking of Colchester mostly take place in the wings. The exception is the final battle between the Romans and Boudica. The anthology’s focus is on Boudica’s rage and the inspirational havoc it wrought on her family and warriors and the guilt that the Romans bore as a result.

The stories present two worlds – Roman and British. Some characters move between them and life becomes all the more difficult for them as choices have to be made. Some people are dragged into the other world through no choice of their own. Others – particularly slaves, wives – must survive as they can, while even queens, not necessarily Boudica, must compromise for her people to survive. There is more than one queen in A Year of Ravens. There is more than one way of dealing with the Romans. The novel doesn’t falter in its depiction of the Celtic British way of life that the Romans crushed – Druids (now homeless), proud warriors (now weaponless) – as well as in its portrayal of disappointed, guilty, proud Romans, male and female. From Queens to slaves and warriors to priests, the stories here cover them all.

In an anthology of seven stories, it’s inevitable that a reader will have favourites. For me, these were Stephanie Dray’s The Queen, Ruth Downie’s The Slave and The Warrior by Kate Quinn. The anthology has such a strong beginning in the safe hands of Stephanie Dray and Ruth Downie. I think I particularly enjoyed these three stories because of their women – Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, Ria the slave and half-sister to Boudica’s daughters, Valeria, the proud aristocratic Roman wife. Of all of these, I loved Valeria the most. What a fascinating woman. It’s strange to think on it but perhaps the least attention-grabbing woman in the anthology is Boudica herself. There are some great male figures, warriors on both sides, and Kate Quinn and S.J.A.Turney do such good jobs of bringing them to life. Arguably, though, the most intriguing male figure is Decianus, the weakest of them all.

There was one story that I couldn’t finish, The Tribune. This completely pulverised my tolerance for swearing threshold and stood out like a sore thumb. We all know Roman soldiers swore like sweary fishwives but it does get dull on the page.

Most of us know well the history of Boudica’s rebellion but this anthology makes a well-known story fresh, thrilling, tragic and catastrophic. The range of perspectives and the key figures drifting in and out of the different stories makes the collection dynamic, the movement between them natural and easy. There are some talented writers here, they are clearly inspired and how it shows. Highly recommended.

Other review
A Day of Fire

The Promise of the Child

The Promise of the Child | Tom Toner | 2015 | Gollancz | 544p | Review copy | Buy the Book

The Promise of the Child by Tom TonerThousands of years have passed since mankind spread among the stars and during that time almost everything has changed and life itself has become, in many cases, something we might not recognise. There are some things about society, though, that can never change. There are rulers, even emperors, with their legions of followers, just as there are others who want to overturn social order through violence. The loss of an entire planet and every living thing on it might well be worth the cost to some. Rumours spread across the Galaxy, or the Amaranthine Firmament, that there is a conspiracy to kill the Emperor, that there are beings who walk the planets spreading disturbances and upset. Everything changed 12,000 years ago when humans left Earth and now something just as monumental for the future of humanity is about to happen again.

The Promise of the Child, just like the universe it portrays, is populated by a host of remarkable, complex, varied creatures, many of whom have ancestors who once walked the Earth as men and women. The central figure Lycaste is one such creature, famed for his beauty, living an idle life in a beautiful house beside the sea, living naked – clothes are no longer needed when a colour-changing skin reveals all one needs to know about another soul – and served by the descendants of birds. It’s all so gorgeous and even decadent until a crime takes place and Lycaste is banished from his Eden, embarking on a great pilgrimage to discover the truth.

Not every human has changed. There are a few individuals who have lived for many thousands of years. They still remember Earth, they keep their old names. They are the elite of this Firmament, its rulers and princes. But after so many years a haven planet is needed. It’s there that these people must go to end their lives after immortality has driven them mad.There is a strong sense that the state of afairs cannot last, that society will alter. One among the immortals causes a great deal of interest and concern – Aaron the Longlife, who has lived the longest of them all. He has a plan. He is following his destiny. Everyone watches, worried for their future.

The Promise of the Child is an extraordinary book in many ways. At the beginning I found it extremely challenging and very hard to get in to. It seemed as if nothing was described but was instead left to be ‘felt’ by the reader, bit by bit. The planets, their inhabitants, their history and their beliefs are only revealed through the stories of the people we meet. Lots of characters flit through the pages, the past and present alternate seamlessly on occasions. It’s a little confusing and bewildering. But perseverance most definitely brings reward – and I speak here as someone who can be very easily put off. I persevered because of the beauty of Tom Toner’s prose. It is gorgeous. The ideas are breathtaking. And as the picture grew of the environments, the different forms and types of people, and the shape of the society, I became mesmerised by it. Lycaste did at times challenge my interest in him but by this stage of the book I was more than happy to be enchanted by the host of wonders I was being presented with, not to mention the building intrigue.

There are some fascinating characters here, most especially Aaron and the others who have lived for ever. We become involved in the conflicts that have divided these new species of humans for centuries if not longer. We slowly learn how the different species relate to one another. By the second half of the book everything begins to fall into place and it is a much more accessible read. The revelations come one after another culminating in the greatest of them all and it was one of those moments in a book that I won’t forget. If I could have bought the author a drink I would have.

I love gobsmacking moments in science fiction, moments that make me sit up with a jolt and see everything around me with fresh and curious eyes. Wonder is vital. There are times when The Promise of the Child is truly wondrous. Without doubt, it is innovative, complex, ambitious and original, throwing down the gauntlet to the reader. I’m so pleased I accepted the challenge.

The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan

The Silent Dead | Claire McGowan | 2015 | Headline | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Dead by Claire McGowanOn 1 May 2006 the Troubles returned to a small village outside Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland, when a bomb tore through buildings and human beings, killing sixteen people, maiming others and destroying the lives of so many more. Five years on and the trial against the Mayday Five, the four men and one woman accused of the atrocity, has recently collapsed amid the wreckage of circumstantial and poorly-gathered evidence. As the day of commemoration nears, the police find one of the Mayday Five dead, hanging, and learn that the other four suspects are missing, each snatched on the same day. It’s not long before a second member of the gang turns up, murdered. The race is on to find the other missing suspects before time runs out for them, too, but this is not an easy case. As the police spend time questioning the survivors and relatives of those murdered by the bomb, the moral question arises of whether it really matters if these five people are eradicated from the Earth.

Paula Maguire is the forensic psychologist assigned to the case by the police. All well and good except at seven months’ pregnant she’s probably not best suited to looking at bodies in the local bog. And to say that there’s ‘history’ with her boss is the biggest understatement of the year. But Paula is determined to get to the bottom of the case, growing close to many of the bomb’s survivors and victims’ relatives. Paula, like so many others, has reason to mourn the Troubles in Northern Ireland for very personal reasons. With the birth of her baby approaching ever closer, Paula is increasingly distracted by thoughts of family.

The Silent Dead is a disturbing, powerful read that at times is almost overwhelming in its portrayal of sadness and frustration. Perhaps reading it over the last weekend while upset over events in Paris wasn’t the time to do it – I think it troubled me all the more. But I remember the Troubles very well, at times too well, and it does no harm at all to be reminded of what it was like. Although the bomb in this novel explodes several years after peace was declared, it’s a strong reminder of Omagh and the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing. Painful memories. And Claire McGowan takes care to show that the fallout from such atrocities takes years to recover from, if ever. It’s impossible to read this novel without undergoing such a range of emotions and feelings, especially in those sections which remember the people that simply disappeared without trace.

The light relief, or just the distraction, comes from Paula and her complicated private life. It’s clear that she’s in no fit state to be so heavily involved in this case and she tests the patience of her police colleagues. But she cannot let it go. There’s a strong sense that the arrival of the baby is going to be accompanied by an enormous shock to Paula’s system. She will have to put another human being first, ahead of her endless curiosity and drive for answers and justice. But she’s the perfect person for people on all sides to talk to and she works wonders. I did get a little irritated by the constant reminders that Paula’s heavily pregnant, as if we could forget it for an instant, but it does us good to be taken out of the other world into which Paula and her colleagues must descend.

I haven’t read any of the other books in this series (there are another two) and I suspect that my appreciation for Paula’s predicament would have been increased if I knew more about her history. There is so much tension here between characters and much of it remained a mystery to me. But, having said that, I was gripped by The Silent Dead and was fully immersed in the world created by Claire McGowan’s fine storytelling. It’s painful at times but it’s also rewarding, hugely difficult to put down, and left me with a great deal on my mind to think about. The themes of innocence and guilt overshadow the whole novel and are dealt with in such a memorable and effective way. I now have another author to follow and read and for that I’m grateful.