Category Archives: Review

The Secret Deep by Lindsay Galvin

Chicken House | 2018 (2 August) | 276p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Secret Deep by Lindsay GalvinSisters Aster and Poppy are having such a hard time of it. Their mother has recently died and neither of them are dealing with it well, particularly the elder sister Aster, and, with their father long dead, they are sent to the other side of the world to live in New Zealand with their mother’s sister, Iona. On arrival Iona takes them deep along the remote coast, to the ecovillage that she has created for a group of orphaned teenagers – and there they can run wild by the sea, learning skills such as boatbuilding and rope making. But both Aster and Poppy are uneasy. And then, one day, Aster wakes up alone on a tropical island, with no idea of how she got there, and Poppy is gone. With increasing dread, she realises that there is just her and the sea, with its impossible secrets.

I’ve always loved books for children and youngsters about the sea. Helen Dunmore’s Ingo novels and the later Stormswept, are among my favourite novels. And so, when I was in need of a comfort read late one night, I turned to The Secret Deep by Lindsay Galvin, a novel that I’ve heard so many good things about. I’m so glad I did! I read it in one addicted sitting.

The Secret Deep begins with such sadness, with the loss of a dearly loved mother, and there is a darkness that shadows over much of the novel, a reminder of how fragile life is, what people will do to preserve it. But set against that we have the warmth of the relationship between the two sisters and also between them and the friends that they make. Adults in this world are not to be trusted. It is better for these youngsters to look out for themselves. They manage it in the most extraordinary circumstances.

This is above all else, though, an adventure! And it’s an exciting one. Set almost entirely on, in or under the sea, it is filled with the wonder of the oceans, but also their danger. The sea here is both an escape and a deathly trap. It’s described fabulously. Aster occupies the heart of The Secret Deep and how I loved her. She’s beautifully written by Lindsay Galvin. She’s both vulnerable and strong, deeply damaged by what has happened but she’s resilient, too.

I did find some of the science a little unbelievable and implausible but, nevertheless, it doesn’t pay to think about that. Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed this thrilling adventure with its glorious setting, yet with more than a hint of true danger and darkness. There is much enjoyment to be found here for both youngsters and oldies alike.

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The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (4 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe Turn of Midnight follows on directly from The Last Hours and concludes this two-part series, so you’ll need to read them in order. This review assumes you’ve read The Last Hours.

It is late 1348 and the southern counties of England have gone quiet. Towns, villages and hamlets have been mostly silenced and emptied, by death and by the flight of those too terrified to stay and face the same fate as their loved ones, only to die somewhere else, friendless, instead. The small community at Develish in Dorseteshire survives within its moated enclosure due to the care and protection of Lady Anne. Their strict quarantine has kept them safe from the Black Death that killed Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard, a vile owner of land and souls. The serfs and slaves of Develish have been given the equality Lady Anne feels is due to all, and an education to go with it. One peasant, Thaddeus, a giant among men for his height and good sense, has risen to become Lady Anne’s most trusted friend but now he continues his travels across Dorseteshire seeking out the truth of what the pestilence has left behind. With him are five boys, fast growing into young men, and their journey will lead them to Blandeforde where everything that they, and Lady Anne, have achieved is put at the most terrible risk.

The Last Hours was such a welcome book – a new novel after many years by the fantastic Minette Walters in a new genre, historical fiction. And what a time she picked in which to set it. 1348 is such a pinnacle year in English history, not just for the Middle Ages but for all periods. England, like so many other places, was transformed by the torment of the Black Death and it could never be the same again for this de-populated land. To all intents and purposes, The Turn of Midnight opens in a post-apocalyptic world, a world that must be rebuilt, and the debate here is how that new world will be ordered – what will be the place of the peasant? and why did God allow so many to perish in such agony? Why did I survive?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, which completes its story, is every bit as good. As it continues into the spring of 1349, the plague, at least in this part of England, has been left behind. Many survivors continue to hide in the most terrible conditions, imprisoned as much by their status as by their fears. Sheep roam free and ownerless but some peasants are too frightened to eat them and would prefer to starve. This is what centuries of feudalism have done to them. Other peasants, though, especially in the towns, are beginning to speak out, albeit cautiously. And it’s these beginnings of society’s transformation that is portrayed here with such colour and feeling.

The Turn of Midnight is on one level such an entertaining historical adventure as it recounts the journey of Thaddeus and his companions across an empty landscape. Many peasants would hardly have travelled and so I loved the section in which they encountered the sea for the first time. The joy of freedom is offset, though, by the desolation of some of the places they pass through. There are sights here that nobody should have to see.

Less time is spent in this novel in the Develish manor as the feeling grows that the time to cross the moat might be approaching but what we have is so well presented. There is change within, new people enter, so brilliantly observed by Minette Walters, while others are not the people they once were. As with Thaddeus and the boys with him, and all of the various people they encounter, everyone in this novel is beautifully brought to life. There are so many little touches that remind us that, although there are similarities between this world and our own, this is a very different, remote and possibly ultimately unknowable period of history. Language, for example, was almost a tool of oppression – the rich spoke in a different tongue, the poor of one area might be completely understood by the poor of another area, and the written word was the privileged knowledge of the few.

Then there is the role of priests, Christianity and religion in general. There is much talk of the deserving poor, the deserving dead, the role of mercy, charity and kindness – practical Christianity is put to test. Power, whether it’s in the hands of priests, stewards, lords, peasant elders or just men in general, is also another fascinating theme.

There is so much to be found within these two books. 1348 must surely rank among the worst of years of any age and Minette Walters brings the horror, desolation and terrible grief of it to life, while reminding us of its legacy for future generations. This is compelling historical fiction, which combines a thrilling story of adventure with some really big themes, all told with Minette Walter’s customary splendid flair.

Other review
The Last Hours

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier

Hero of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Corgi | 2010, Pb 2011 | 480p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Hero of Rome by Douglas JacksonIt is AD 59 and Roman officer Gaius Valerius Verrens is finishing off his tour of duty to Britain as tribune to the Twentieth Legion while they’re stationed in the Severn Valley. For now all seems calm but the British tribes are growing restless as demands for tax, subservience and control increase. The situation is aggravated by the Druids. Most are now hiding away on an island off the coast of north Wales but one young Druid left behind, Gwlym, is growing in influence. Valerius is a natural soldier and leader and he has more than one opportunity to show his skill with the sword before he is sent to Colonia in the east of the province to await his orders to return to Rome where he can begin the next stage of his career on the way to the Senate. But there’s someone who has something to say about that and her name is Boudicca.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, is on the rampage. Whipped and humiliated by the Romans, her daughters raped, her lands seized, Boudicca is after Roman blood and thousands flock to her banner. Colonia stands between Boudicca and London. Valerius with so few men is given orders to work with Colonia’s local militia of retired legionaries to stop Boudicca’s army in its tracks. It’s a terrible task.

Hero of Rome, published in 2010, began a series that rapidly became one of my very favorites of all series, whatever the genre, and it started it in spectacular fashion. Its centrepiece, the siege of Valerius and the Roman forces and townspeople inside Colonia’s enormous Temple of Claudius, a symbol of Roman might if ever there was one, is phenomenal and remains one of the best action sequences I’ve ever read. Perhaps its closest rival is the siege of Jerusalem in another of this series, Scourge of Rome.

But re-reading Hero of Rome reminds me that there is much more to this fantastic, thoroughly exciting novel than the Temple of Claudius sequence (although reading it again, it was every bit as brilliant as it was the first time). This is a substantial novel, after all. We spend time getting to know Valerius and his men and it is so good to meet the tribune again as a young man. The series has very recently finished with the excellent Hammer of Rome, set over twenty years after the events of Hero of Rome and the mature Valerius is a very different man from the one we first meet here. But perhaps that’s not surprising because the siege of the temple at Colonia and its aftermath is life-changing for Valerius in more ways than one.

I’ve said it more than once and I’ll say it again – it’s been an absolute joy to read the nine books that comprise the Hero of Rome series. I’ve loved every step of the way. Douglas Jackson knows this period inside out and the books are packed full of historical and military details, and Gaius Valerius Verrens is a worthy, unusual hero. Now that the series is complete, it’s the perfect time to read it, if you haven’t had the pleasure already.

Other reviews
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
Glory of Rome
Hammer of Rome
An interview

Thrillers written as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Riverrun | 2018 (6 September) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Water by Elizabeth LowryIt is 1855 and Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, is putting to paper his thoughts concerning ‘the dark water, or submerged aspect of the human mind’, reflecting on those pivotal moments in his life and career when he served as assistant surgeon aboard the Orbis in 1833. In that brutal environment, so far from home and safety, Carver met William Borden, a man loved by everyone and known to all as ‘The Hero of the Providence‘.

The Providence was an unhappy ship, its crew torn apart by mutiny. Borden put a small number, including the captain, aboard a dinghy and he sailed them to land after a terrible journey of several months. This experience has left its mark. Back in Boston some time after his experiences aboard the Orbis, Dr Carver receives a new patient in his asylum – William Borden. Madness has pursued him but Carver is determined to cure him. And the only way he can do that is to make them both understand what happened on the Providence, to go back to the dark water that continues to haunt both Borden and Carver.

Dark Water is a novel I’ll remember for a long time. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this novel swept me off my feet. It is beautifully elegiac, telling a Gothic story that also feels so grounded in 19th-century Boston, before the events of the American Civil War. The sea and the land – namely Boston, Charlestown and the island of Nantucket – play equal parts and they’re both evocatively depicted, although it’s at sea, the sea that laps up against the coast of Massachusetts and is always inescapable, where the true mystery lies.

Above all else this is the story of Hiram Carver, told in his own words. Carver hates the sea, it hates him. He feels most at home in his office in the asylum for the insane observing patients who are most surely at sea, kept apart from their families and loved ones, from reality. These are Carver’s memoirs and in them we find the Hero, the enigmatic William Borden, Carver’s addiction, but there are others equally memorable – Carver’s sister Caro, Borden’s fiancee Ruth, Carver’s boss and mentor at the hospital, Dr Mansfield, and so many others and they all leave their mark, perhaps more than anywhere on the island of Nantucket.

Watching Hiram Carver’s personality change so severely for the worse through the years is compelling and here is the quiet, moody drama of Dark Water. What happened to Barden is a great mystery to Carver but for us it holds fewer surprises. Instead, I was riveted by this most elegant tale of lost human lives, that fragile line between sanity and madness, and the hopelessness of love. It is melancholic and cruel in places but there’s such a beauty to it. Images  and themes are pursued through the novel, especially the act of eating and starving – it’s cleverly done. I also really enjoyed the extracts from the court case that prosecuted the mutineers. It’s such a riveting story.

Dark Water is a relatively lengthy novel and every page of it is a pleasure. It’s extremely hard to put down. Elizabeth Lowry is such a fine writer, she pulls you into the book and there’s no chance of release until the end. There is so much to it. A tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Irresistible.

The Spear of Atlantis by Andy McDermott

Headline | 2018 (20 September) | 576p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Spear of Atlantis by Andy McDermottNina and Eddie are back! And how glad I am to see them. This archaeological mystery thriller series has been one of my very favourites for years and I can’t get enough of them. Nina Wilde, the famous archaeologist, and Eddie Chase, her ex-SAS bald Yorkshireman husband, are old friends of mine. They’re constantly getting to trouble and, whenever they do, we’re right by their side. The Spear of Atlantis is the fourteenth adventure in the series and, as with any of them, it can be read alone but reading them from the beginning has been such a joy.

Nina Wilde is the most famous archaeologist of her day. Her discoveries have been extraordinary and they’ve become the stuff of legend, even forming the subject for a series of successful films. Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering that they include Atlantis, Excalibur and the tomb of Hercules. Nina is a celebrity, famous most of all for Atlantis. And so when a ludicrously wealthy Emir holds an exhibition of priceless Atlantis artefacts on the maiden voyage of his enormously luxurious cruise ship Atlantia, it’s not surprising that he should invite Nina along as his guest of honour. Unfortunately, Nina, as ever, is a magnet for trouble. There is one artefact in particular that everybody wants because, so legend has it, it will lead the way to the Spear of Atlantis. And the Spear is one object that the world does not want to fall into the wrong hands. Only two things can stop that happening – one is Nina Wilde and the other is Eddie Chase.

I read The Spear of Atlantis on my summer holidays and I couldn’t have picked a better choice. This is just the sort of book you want to read to make a plane journey fly by. Recent novels in the series have been a little more hit or miss than usual, largely due to the introduction of Macy, Nina and Eddie’s precocious little daughter, who, I’m afraid to say, can be extremely irritating. But the good news is that the older she gets, the less I mind her and Eddie is becoming thankfully less child-friendly again. In fact, Macy doesn’t feature in this novel as much, leaving the adults to get on with what they do best – fighting for their lives, destroying vast swathes of cities or archaeological sites, working out puzzles and making the most atrocious puns. The result is one of my favourite books of the fourteen.

Much of The Spear of Destiny takes place either at sea or across Spain and I loved these locations (I was actually in Spain when I read it). I really enjoyed the introductory chapters aboard the cruise ship and they set up the thriller very well and then it all explodes – quite literally. Nina is on the run and Eddie isn’t too far behind her. It’s thrilling stuff. Nina gets some chapters on her own in the novel and it’s good to spend some quality time with her as she works out some extremely complex clues while trying to stay one step ahead of the baddies.

Eddie is one of my favourite characters in all fiction. I love him. He makes me laugh so many times. Andy McDermott has got his character down to the letter. He’s extremely entertaining, so well depicted – I can picture him in my head so clearly – and full of life. The baddies are a mixed and varied bunch and a couple are rather interesting and unusual. This is one of the lighter books of the series in tone but no less enjoyable for that.

As always with a thriller such as this you have to suspend your powers of disbelief. But it’s such a pleasure to do that. I’ve been reading these thrillers for over ten years and the pleasure they continue to give me is priceless. I can’t thank Andy McDermott enough for feeding my habit for Nina and Eddie.

Other reviews
Temple of the Gods
The Valhalla Prophecy
Kingdom of Darkness
The Revelation Code
King Solomon’s Curse

Adam Gray thriller
The Shadow Protocol (or The Persona Protocol)

The Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott

Titan Books | 2018 (21 August) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottIt is 1947 and for many the Second World War is not yet over. Dr Duncan Forrester, an archaeological fellow at Oxford University, rather hopes it is for him. He was a Special Operations Executive during the war, risking his life behind enemy lines. Now he wants to put all of that behind him, as well as affairs of the heart, and focus on the archaeology and linguistics of ancient Minoan society.

But then a student calls in a favour. A friend of his, Templar, now working at the Foreign Office, bought a Sumerian seal when he was based in Cairo during the war. At the time Templar thought little of it but now he is receiving anonymous and bizarre threats, demanding the return of the seal. Forrester promises to do what he can but then one night Templar is found horribly murdered in the Near Eastern galleries of the British Museum. It is almost as if a supernatural power has wreaked its vengeance on him. And Templar’s death is just the beginning.

The Age of Exodus is the third and final novel in Gavin Scott’s Duncan Forrester trilogy, set during the aftermath of World War Two. I haven’t read The Age of Treason and The Age of Olympus but I’m now determined to put that right because I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent mix of archaeological mystery and diplomacy gone awry during these difficult months and years as the world tries to make peace work. The fact that I hadn’t read the others didn’t affect my enjoyment, other than that some people were mentioned that I think familiar readers might have encountered before. There were also hints of previous events and cases but nothing that spoiled the earlier books. This is a stand alone thriller.

It’s a great story and it’s cleverly done. The menacing gods of ancient Sumer loom over events and occultists flourish in the magic and esoteric bookshops of London and further afield. It all adds such a chilling, quite frightening yet fascinating atmosphere. And the hint of the supernatural hanging over the gruesome murders is very effective. That’s one side of the book. The other takes us into the halls of diplomacy at a time when countries squabbled over the creation of an independent State of Israel for those Jews who suffered unspeakable horror. This part of the novel is compelling as we meet some of the key figures of the debate, some historical and some fictional, as the arguments move across Britain, Europe and the United States. I really enjoyed the novel’s movement and journeys. What stays with the reader, though, may well be the Jewish refugees that Forrester encounters while they wait for a vessel to sail them on that hugely risky voyage to safety. These people will never be able to leave the war behind them.

I’m hard pressed to find a fault with The Age of Exodus but if I had to find one it would be that there are an awful lot of characters who come and go through these pages. I did find it a little difficult remembering who some of these people were and I would have welcomed a list of characters at the beginning or end.

The Age of Exodus tells a fascinating tale, combining a fun archaeological mystery complete with larger than life characters with a significant historical issue and making both compelling and gripping. Duncan Forrester is a fantastic detective. He has his own inner struggles. He is both a reluctant killer and a studious academic. At times his actions surprise himself. He’s led by his heart, even as he works things out. He’s a likeable man, searching for answers in a world that’s left him a little lost. I can’t wait to read the earlier two books.