Category Archives: Review

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Rush Oh! | Shirley Barrett | 2016 | Virago | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rush Oh! by Shirley BarrettIt is 1908 in a small coastal settlement outside Eden in New South Wales, Australia. A crew of whalers is led by ‘Fearless’ Davidson but success or failure is not down to the team alone. Their hunt is aided by a pod of killer whales, led by Old Tom, who, if one were to think about whales in such a way (and I can’t help it), is proud, strong, mischievous and dominant. It is Tom who announces the arrival of a large whale in the cove by breaching, smashing his body down onto the waves, calling the whalers to their ridiculously small, vulnerable boats. ‘Rush oh!’ the men call as they run to their oars. But 1908 is not a good year for the whalers. After a century of hunting, the whales are seeing fit to avoid the cove. The whalers are barely subsisting. Their reliance on the killer whales is more urgent than ever.

Mary Davidson is Fearless Davidson’s eldest daughter and, in the absence of their long-dead mother, her role is to care for her brothers and sisters while catering for the whalers. As the poor season continues, cooking something from nothing becomes increasingly hard. Mary isn’t particularly close to her siblings – her beautiful sister Louisa’s life seems relatively charmed by comparison while the oldest brother Harry has his own battles to prove aboard the second whaling boat. And so Mary looks for comfort where she can. She finds it in a new whaler, John Beck, a mysterious man who was once, he says, a Methodist minister and who has retained a way with words. Mary also finds comfort in the world around her, both people and animals, and it’s her record of these as well as her life in this remote settlement so dependent on the bounty of the sea that forms the warm, rich heart of Rush Oh!.

Mary Davidson is a wonderful, humorous narrator and it is her charm and resilience that makes Rush Oh such a captivating read. She doesn’t just describe her family and the men aboard the boats, Mary also brings to life the animals with whom they share their lives in this corner of Australia, including a rather tetchy grey kangaroo, a pair of horrendous mating birds and, best of all, their horse that won’t go anywhere without its cow best friend. And when that cow needs an umbrella held over its head, that makes for an awkward expedition. It’s all so beautifully written and the pleasure I derived from it reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s novels, which I adore. Supporting the comparison are the fabulous little drawings which can be found scattered throughout.

I almost didn’t read Rush Oh! because of its whaling theme. But then I remembered that Moby Dick is one of my very favourite novels and realised that this was not a good reason not to read it. It’s a book that richly evokes another time and place and Mary’s handling of the hunts is sensitively done, especially once she’s seen a hunt with her own eyes. There is a strong sense of empathy with the whales, and not just with the extraordinary pod of killer whales that has formed a mutually useful relationship with the whalers and yet they always have a menace about them. The descriptions of the hunts are bloody – and lethal for men and whale – and in every one I was on the side of the whale. I sense that some people in the novel felt the same way. The whales exert a powerful presence, not least because the settlement needs them for its very survival.

Rush Oh! is thoroughly enjoyable. It made me laugh out loud repeatedly. It is a light read – it could have been much, much darker and its ending could have been more deeply explored, as could Mary’s romance. But Rush Oh! is not that kind of novel. Instead it interprets (and alters) this true story with a strong and generous empathy for its people, history and environment. Mary is a delightful companion. There’s a sadness about her, especially when her memories lead her in directions she’d prefer to avoid, but she is such a fine observer of people and nature and she (or Shirley Barrett) conveys it through the most enchanting words and pictures.

Find Her by Lisa Gardner

Find Her | Lisa Gardner | 2016 | Headline | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Find Her by Lisa GardnerSeven years ago Flora Dane was seized while enjoying her Spring Break in Florida. So began 472 days of torment and endurance, 472 days that would change and redefine this young woman to such an extent that her family could barely recognise the Flora they adored. During the last five years since her escape, Flora has become a survivor, ready to confront any danger she should meet, strong and fierce, resourceful and ingenious with everyday objects which, in her hands, can be lethal. This is just as well because Flora has found a cause – Flora is obsessed with other young women who never made it home. Her bedroom wall is covered with their images. She knows better than anyone the predators that they face, the terror and agony that they suffer, and she is going to end it.

Find Her is an astonishingly powerful depiction of Flora Dane’s endurance, not just during her 472 days of captivity but also during the years that followed it, culminating in the present day when yet again Flora is going to find herself facing the very depths, determined to save the innocent before they become as she is. The novel moves between the past and present, presenting Flora’s past experiences in her own words. And it is a harrowing tale. We are not spared and the descriptions of her experiences within the pine coffin in which she was ‘stored’ day in, day out are currently haunting my nights. This is an extraordinary portrait of survival against, and no exaggeration, all the odds. The relationship of Flora to her captor is brilliantly done. There’s nothing straightforward here. I’m no psychologist but Lisa Gardner writes with what feels like great insight.

Two other narratives form the novel – in one we have Flora in the present day, the new Flora, the one created by her earlier experiences but still in the process of being changed by it. In the other is the story of D.D. Warren, the Boston detective in charge of the present day missing girl cases. D.D. is a fascinating character in her own right, dealing with some issues from a previous case but completely committed to finding these lost girls. I really liked D.D. and the sections of the novel we spend with her do provide those brief moments of escapism from Flora’s existence and the world of one of the most realistically horrendous and evil characters I can remember reading about.

Find Her is one of the most tense and disturbing novels I’ve read in quite a while. It’s not an easy read – the subject matter and the skill with which it’s handled by the author ensure it’s harrowing. But it is most certainly compelling. This is one of those books you might just want to stay up for the night to read. Lisa Gardner must be congratulated for her portrait of Flora Dane – she makes us care deeply for this young girl changed for ever by the events that unfold through this remarkable novel.

I’ve not read Lisa Gardner before. I’m correcting that straight away. Crash and Burn is going to the top of my TBR mountain.

Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt

Thunderbird | Jack McDevitt | 2015 | Headline | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thunderbird by Jack McDevittA stargate has been found on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Not far from it is discovered a boat made from modern, even futuristic materials, but the lake it is found beside disappeared over ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age. The stargate leads to a number of destinations, three of which are currently being explored: a fertile land of forest, garden and sea known as Eden; a deserted space station with a view of the Milky Way; a maze of underground passageways. Opinion on the stargate is divided. While some view it as a marvel with the potential to revolutionise society and culture, others, including the President of the USA, regard it as a Pandora’s Box which, at best, would damage industry and send the country into a decline and, at worst, could unleash unknown horrors onto the Earth. There are convincing arguments put here for both sides. The uncertainty isn’t helped by frequent observations in the nearby towns of a strange ghostlike presence which appears to be keeping watch and, now and again, touching human lives.

The stargate has stayed under the control of the Sioux community, led by chairman James Walker, and it has transformed life on the reservation. Every mission is escorted by Sioux guards while local journalists are keen to accompany the scientists, astronauts and explorers on their expeditions. All of them are united by curiosity. Chief among these is radio talkshow host Brad Hollister who both wants to visit these worlds and explain them to his listeners but is also terrified. Nevertheless, that curiosity forces him on to take step after step into the unknown. He travels with Paula, April and others into each of the three environments and is with them when new wonders are revealed. Back on Earth, we spend time with Walker and the President as they consider the wider issues of the stargate for society and for humanity as a whole. The debate takes on a whole new edge when April makes first contact.

Thunderbird is the sequel to Ancient Shores, published in 1996, which I have yet to read. Possibly because of the passing of time, Thunderbird feels like a stand alone novel. Its events have been moved into the present day even though it follows directly on from the earlier novel and much is recapped. Clearly the repercussions of events in the previous novel are being heavily felt in Thunderbird but it didn’t spoil it for me. On the contrary, it made me want to make sure I read Ancient Shores in the future.

I have been a big fan of Jack McDevitt’s work for years and I am slowly reading and re-reading his past novels while enjoying any new books that come along. I love the way in which he presents wonders in almost straightforward terms. Here we have the lighter side of science fiction. The emphasis, in my opinion, is very much on the human reaction to the mystery of space. The science is secondary to the sense of wonder he wants to achieve when he gets a timid but hugely courageous human to open a door on the stargate, to cross a bridge into the unknown, knock on the door of a house on another planet.

There are so many characters to follow in Thunderbird. They come and go, each with their personal ambitions for the stargate, their fears and prejudices, their sense of adventure, their reluctance. The novel presents a fascinating look at the relationship between different peoples, whether between the Sioux and others, or between human beings and aliens. What some see as a great opportunity, others regard with deep suspicion and even hostility. Not everyone is brave enough to step on to the stargate. The strange alien entity moving around the local towns is the focus for all sorts of conflicted feelings. But there is a strong sense in Thunderbird that once the gate is opened, that’s it. Life can never be the same again.

I found Thunderbird a very hard novel to put down. It’s an escapist read. I could not stop reading most of all because I had to know more about the worlds on the other side of the stargate and, as the novel goes on, more of these mysterious environments are opened up to us, leading up to some enormous developments and surprises. And when first contact is thrown into the mix, Thunderbird becomes irresistible.

Other reviews
With Mike Resnick – The Cassandra Project
Coming Home

The Cassandra Sanction by Scott Mariani

The Cassandra Sanction | Scott Mariani | 2016 | Avon | 407p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cassandra Sanction by Scott MarianiBen Hope is back! And how glad I am to see him. Scott Mariani has entertained me for years with this charismatic, deeply appealing action hero, who wants nothing more than to find the lost while doing his utmost to find the most elusive figure of them all – himself. The Cassandra Sanction is the twelfth novel in the series but it works well as a stand alone. There are hints and clues to past events, filling in some of the background for the uninitiated while giving his devoted readers a memory nudge. But, as with any outstanding and addictive series, I would certainly recommend going back to the beginning, either before or after you read this one. Ben’d like that.

Ben is on the move. Listless and aimless, he’s drifting where the mood takes him (by public transport – Ben does not have the happiest of relationships with car rental companies). We meet Ben in a bar in Spain. He’s keeping his head down, nursing his drink, but Ben has never been one to ignore the needs of an underdog and so, when a group of rowdies in search of a fight bully a young man, Ben is quick to come to his aid. Not that the young Spaniard seems to need it. He’s well able to stand up for himself, even setting one of the bullies on fire. But the young man, Raoul, is drunk and depressed, the fight soon gone from him, and he needs Ben to get him safely home. Raoul has good reason to be so down. His twin sister Catalina has just committed suicide, having driven her car off a cliff. But Raoul knows Catalina better than anyone and he is convinced that she is alive. Ben knows all there is to know about losing people he loves and he can’t stop himself. He has to help Raoul discover the truth. And when the bullets start to fly and the piles of corpses build up, Ben finds himself on yet another action hero’s busman’s holiday.

The Cassandra Sanction is an addictive thriller. This is no surprise – all of the Ben Hope books are next to impossible to put down and from the very beginning this new novel is no different. Scott Mariani knows exactly how to entrap his reader within a well-written, brilliantly-imagined, bloodpumping thrillfest, fuelled by great characters, exhilarating action sequences, astonishing situations and a puzzle that works away at your curiosity bone. Each of the Ben Hope novels is different – some are more mystery based than others. The Cassandra Sanction is one of the more action-based thrillers, with its great secret taking second place to Ben’s adventures with Raoul. This is much more of a novel about Ben, fighting the good fight against bad. As said before, it felt a little like a busman’s holiday, giving Ben a break from the turmoil and heartbreak that has followed him in recent novels and, even when he’s getting shot at (and having yet another rental car blown into smithereens), there’s a sense that this is doing him some good.

But it’s not all about Ben. I did enjoy getting to know Raoul and certain other people I don’t want to mention for spoiler purposes. We’re soon thrown into the heart of a conspiracy and there’s nothing to do but hold on and enjoy the thrills as we’re taken on a lethal world tour at breakneck speed. There’s also a dash of astronomy – I like that in a thriller.

While the mystery itself is, I have to admit, not one of the most enticing puzzles that we’ve enjoyed in the series, it’s more than compensated for by Scott Mariani’s focus on this most attractive and resourceful of heroes. Despite the novel’s bullet pace, we still manage to spend some quality time with Ben, learning just that little bit more about this fascinating man (once a theologian, at another time an SAS major) as he tries to recover his sense of direction in a world that’s gone mad – or just wants to shoot him. I count the days until adventure number thirteen, The Star of Africa.

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse

Avon is publishing new editions of the first three Ben Hope adventures (read them, they’re fantastic!), and I’m delighted to share with you here the cover of The Mozart Conspiracy, the second in the series.

The Mozart Conspiracy
I’m so pleased to be posting this review as part of a Blog Tour – I’ve been a Ben Hope fangirl for years so I can’t tell you how chuffed I am to be a part of it. For other stops on the tour, please see the poster below.
Cassandra Sanction blog tour

Dead Pretty by David Mark

Dead Pretty | David Mark | 2016 | Mulholland Books | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Pretty by David MarkWhen DS Aector McAvoy takes his family out for picnics, they sit on the local park grass, under which McAvoy is convinced Hannah Kelly, a young girl missing for months, lies buried. He is obsessed by this girl that he couldn’t find, he wants to be as close to her as he can, swearing to her that he will catch her killer. McAvoy’s wife, Roisin, understands, as does everyone else including his boss, Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh. Pharaoh, though, has a world of problems of her own to contend with, not least the recent release from prison of Reuben Hollow, a man found to have been imprisoned wrongfully for murder. Hollow has become a media sensation and Pharaoh’s reputation has been damaged by the whole business. It doesn’t help that Hollow is easy on the eye and that he’s trying to attract hers as he makes it clear that he doesn’t blame Pharaoh for his conviction. And then there’s the matter of her husband and those debts. When someone comes knocking on Pharoah’s door these days it can never be good news.

But it’s about to get worse. The body of another young girl is found, Ava Delaney. McAvoy is convinced that the cases of Ava and Hannah are linked and he is determined to find the connection whatever the personal cost. He might as well be on his own, though. Pharaoh is seriously distracted, absent in more ways than one, not opening up about what’s on her mind. McAvoy begins to fear the worst. But his focus has to be on these two lost girls who are relying on him for justice.

Dead Pretty is the first novel I’ve read in the McAvoy series but it didn’t matter at all as I found myself quickly absorbed into these lives. There are tantalising mentions of previous events but nothing is spoiled. I immediately felt the appeal of the sensitive, gentle giant Aector McAvoy but the main focus of my attention was Trish Pharaoh. This is a remarkable portrait of a woman who appears on the surface to be only just hanging on but has such a depth to her – her children, her husband, Reuben Hollow, McAvoy and Roisin, her job, booze – all of these and much more occupy this complicated woman’s mind. There are little moments, such as her horror at realising she’s left her fake tooth in a glass by her bed when she’s been called out to bring her teenage daughter home, which contribute to such a thoroughly three-dimensional portrait of a fascinating woman. Pharaoh’s self-image is completely at odds with the one that the world sees. I loved that. The relationship between McAvoy and Pharaoh and between their families is tender but, intriguingly, it isn’t straightforward.

Dead Pretty presents a fine mystery which contains some truly disturbing revelations. The truth reveals itself slowly, having allowed layer upon layer of possibilities to build up before each is peeled away. For much of the time we are as much in the dark as McAvoy. But what makes the mystery all the more powerful and meaningful and moving when it needs to be, is that Dead Pretty is a character-driven story. We don’t just get to know the main characters, we also meet their families. Even the worst of bad guys have another side to them. This makes the brutality all the more shocking. The fact that the novel is beautifully written is just another of the book’s joys.

It was such a pleasure to meet and get to know Aector McAvoy and, especially, Trish Pharaoh. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre

Black Widow | Chris Brookmyre | 2016 | Little, Brown | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Black Widow by Chris BrookmyreDiana Jager does not suffer fools lightly. A successful surgeon, she is fiercely independent, proud of her achievements (she prefers to retain her title of Doctor unlike many other surgeons) and is prepared to stand up for the rights of women in a sexist workplace. Her blog, written under the name of ‘Scalpelgirl’ and highlighting the inequalities and indignities endured by women in medicine, causes a stir across the medical community and triggers a witch hunt against the so-called ‘Bladebitch’. It’s not long before Diana is identified and she is driven from her hospital to start again at another in Inverness.

Keeping herself apart from everyone, Diana is probably the last person to expect to find love but she does. She falls in love with an IT officer at the hospital called Peter, a man who knows how to say exactly the right thing. It seems too good to be true and so it is. Within six months they are married and six months after that Peter is dead in a road accident. But Peter’s sister Lucy believes it was no accident and calls on Jack Parlabane to uncover the truth about the Black Widow.

So begins a clever, twisty and complex tale, given to us from three very different perspectives – Diana herself, Jack Parlabane and Ali, a detective on the case who has to have all her wits about her to unravel the strands of this knotted web. As we move back and forwards through time, the picture slowly builds of the relationship between Diana and Peter, their characters and the environment in which they lived and worked. But in Black Widow nothing is simple. After its initial empathy with the widowed bride, the media is fast to shift and soon Diana – Bladebitch and now the Black Widow – is judged and convicted by the public.

The stories we are told here are all different and it’s up to the reader to decide who to believe, all the time conscious of how the media, the public and society can prejudice our opinions. At the heart of the dilemma is our own opinion of Diana and also of Peter. It’s true that Diana’s not always likeable and this is increasingly supported by the reports gathered by Jack and Ali. But Diana’s own narrative slowly builds another portrait of a woman who has been harried throughout her career, who has a deep sense of care for her patients and for justice and who is human – even surgeons can make mistakes, people just prefer to believe that they don’t. There is a vulnerability to Diana – and to Jack and Ali – and these hidden sides help to make Black Widow a strongly character-driven puzzler. Not least because so little is as it seems. The shocks and twists when they come are jawdroppers.

This is, though, a dark tale, which meant I kept my emotional distance from several of the key characters. Nevertheless, even though I never particularly warmed to Diana, I was fascinated by her character and by her story. This is the first Jack Parlabane novel I’ve read but this only mattered in that I knew very little about Jack. Otherwise I think Black Widow stands very well alone.

I was gripped by Black Widow and full of admiration for its wonderfully complicated and clever structure. We are introduced to a whole range of witnesses through the novel and our position to them shifts continually. Someone can say one thing but later on in the novel we know that this could have meant something else entirely. This novel kept me on my toes and, if it’s possible to do this at the same time, on the edge of my seat.

Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

Nightblind | Ragnar Jónasson | 2016 | Orenda Books | 210p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightblind by Ragnar JonassonFive years have passed since the events of Snowblind. Ari Thór Arason is now settled as a policeman in the fishing village of Siglufjörður, on the northernmost tip of Iceland. While he was overlooked for the role of inspector when his previous boss headed south, his family life has settled. He now lives with his partner Kirstin and they have a baby son. In fact, much is bright on the horizon. Siglufjörður no longer relies on an unreliable tunnel for contact through the long winter nights. There is now a new tunnel which has seen the place revitalised with tourists and skiers keen to visit a place that is so beautiful, helping a community suffering from lost herring shoals. But so much of this is surface deep. Ari Thór’s relationship isn’t quite what it seems, Siglufjörður is still as dark as pitch for the wintry weeks of the year and now the new inspector has been shot at point blank range outside an empty house in the dead of night.

This is a quiet, contained community but it is a place where everyone wants to know everyone else’s business. It reels with the shock of the inspector’s shooting – this is not a place where you want a killer on the loose – but it is all too keen to keep its secrets. Ari Thór’s old boss Tómas is recalled to lead the investigation. It’s not that easy for the two men to work together despite the brittle friendship that has grown between them but work together they must. There are people to investigate, not least the new mayor and his assistant who, like Ari Thór, is a newcomer to the village and, as such, will forever be made to feel like an outsider. And all the time Ari Thór must deal with the family of the shot inspector as well as Kirstin and the very real prospect that someone in this enclosed community is not what they seem. It’s time to rid this place of its secrets.

I must admit to feeling a little puzzled that the original novels are being translated and internationally published out of order – I understand that the next book will go back again to the time following the events of Snowblind. However, regardless of this, Snowblind was an excellent debut by Ragnar Jónasson but, in my opinion, it is outshone by Nightblind. This novel is far more confident and better structured. It moves with greater ease towards its goal, there’s none of the stalling that slowed the pace of Snowblind. Nightblind knows where it’s going and it sticks to its path throughout. Again we have a closed community, a traditional whodunnit in the style of Agatha Christie, but now we have a cleverly laid maze of red herrings and possible suspects, all set against a background of life in Siglufjörður, with all its worries, family unhappiness and that stark beauty of an Iceland winter night.

The novel mostly follows Ari Thór through his investigation. As with Snowblind, I have mixed feelings towards our detective, wishing he was more energetic and more alert to the people around him. But as Nightblind continues, I felt more sympathetically towards a man who seems to have always believed himself out of his depth. It takes a while but finally Ari Thór comes into his own.

Throughout the novel are scattered passages from a journal written by someone trapped in a hospital psychiatric ward. They seem to be there against their will but the reason why only slowly emerges.

The mystery contained with Nightblind is an excellent one. It involves themes that are forever important, no matter where we live. But the fact that these are set within this most atmospheric and beautiful of winter settings adds another level of pleasure for the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed Nightblind. Well-written and beautifully atmospheric, it has an excellent translator in Quentin Bates. It’s an immersive read and suits well one or two sittings, curled up, warm and cosy, with winter safely kept at bay and just out of reach.

Other review
Snowblind

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Nightblind this month. For other stops on the tour, take a look at the poster below.

Nightblind blog tour