Year One by Nora Roberts

Piatkus | 2017 (5 December) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

Year One by Nora RobertsWhen Ross MacLeod shoots a pheasant dead and its body falls to the ground in the centre of an ancient stone circle in Dumfries in Scotland, he has no way of knowing that he has sealed the fate of not just himself but of billions of people around the world. He and his brother and cousin are with their wives in a farmhouse miles from their homes in New York City, celebrating the New Year in fine and traditional fashion. But when Ross and Angie fly home to the States they carry with them an illness that the world will soon know as the Doom. It is merciless in its greed and ferocity.

But not everybody dies. As the world collapses around them, a few live on and they are helped in their survival by new and strange abilities. Some when they touch another person can sense their future, some can fly, some can move objects, some can create power and light. But there are others who have the power of darkness. Magic has returned to the land and with it hope but also danger.

Year One is a bewitching novel in so many ways. On one level it is a very good apocalyptic tale and, even though it is caused by disease, as one character declares, this is no zombie apocalypse. Phew! The chapters that describe the world’s descent into this chaos of death and fear are superb. It’s not only engrossing, it’s also emotional. We meet a great many characters in this novel and all of them have a tale of tragedy to tell. Surviving an apocalypse is as hard as succumbing to it.

There is a strong magic element and I thought that this might be a hurdle I couldn’t overcome. I’m not a reader of fantasy and I particularly don’t read novels about magic, fairies and elves. But it’s integrated so well into what feels like reality that I found myself accepting every word of it. The magic doesn’t take over and generally it feels like another symptom of the disease and not otherworldly. Nevertheless there is something unworldly here but I loved how it’s done. It’s also fascinating to listen in to the discussions on how this came about. While one person might argue that the rest of the population were wiped out as a kind of cleansing and these new superhuman beings were born as a result, another believes that these new superhuman beings have been created as a source of hope for the continued survival of humanity. This element of hope is such a critical part of the mood of Year One. There is a sense that mankind is inherently good while it is clear that a few human beings are wrapped in sin.

I love the cast of Year One. We follow several small groups of people as they make their way to a safe place in the United States. The journeys are arduous, harrowing and packed with adventure. They’re so compelling. You have to keep your wits about you to remember who is in which group but so many of these people are three-dimensional with an interesting tale to tell. And the relationships between them are enthralling and moving.

Year One is the first novel in a new series – Chronicles of the One – and this did lead to my one issue with the novel. The ending, without giving anything away, wasn’t entirely satisfactory due to the number of loose ends that are left untied, the people that we leave in the lurch, as the focus narrows to follow just one person. I’m hoping that the answers will be provided in the next novel in the series. I’m so desperate to know.

But, above all else, Year One is an engrossing and original apocalyptic vision that takes an intriguing look into the future of a new form of humanity. I haven’t read any Nora Roberts’ novels before and I understand that this one is a little different from her usual fare. It certainly has me hooked.

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The Death Messenger by Mari Hannah

Pan | 2017 (16 November) | 435p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Death Messenger by Mari HannahA DVD is sent to Northumbria Police Headquarters. A lock-up drenched in blood fills the screen while an anonymous woman’s voice coldly describes the appalling scene. There is no body. So begins the challenging first case for a new special unit led by Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil. Detective Sergeant Matthew Ryan is the other core member of the unit but, when it becomes clear that there have been other DVDs, other blood-soaked rooms, O’Neil builds her team – it’s an unusual team, but it’s one she can trust. They all share a history.

They also share a commitment to tracking down a serial killer who appears to be playing games. The stakes are high, the victims prominent in society and yet random. They’re also scattered across the country and beyond. But, in order to crack the case, O’Neil and Ryan and their team must also look inwards, to try and heal the scars that threaten their investigation. Meanwhile the killer has an agenda of their own.

The Death Messenger follows on from The Silent Room, a superb novel that began Mari Hannah’s Matthew Ryan series. I’d definitely suggest that you read that marvellous book first because it provides such insight into the main characters and their complicated and heartfelt relationships, but, if you haven’t, you’ll find that The Death Messenger stands alone well.

As you’d expect from a Mari Hannah novel, this is a very clever mystery. The story is complex and moves along with a brisk speed. We’re placed in the midst of the case and little allowance is made for our status on the sidelines. We must pay attention. And it is absolutely fascinating. It’s also relatively gore-free. We have locations but few bodies. Instead, the novel focuses on the horrendous impact of murder on the partners and families of the victim, as well as on the investigative team.

The Death Messenger is a novel with a great deal of heart and warmth. Ryan and Eloise are fantastic characters, drawn with great depth and feeling, and their relationship is a joy to follow. Things have moved on from The Silent Room but they’re still walking on eggshells and it doesn’t help that they have Grace and Newman stirring the pot, two more characters that I’ve grown to love.

The Death Messenger is a clever novel, beautifully written and plotted, with characters I can’t get enough of. This doesn’t surprise me because Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels’ series has just the same appeal. The Death Messenger confirms the Matthew Ryan series in my affections. Kate Daniels has a rival on her hands…

Other reviews
The Silent Room
Gallows Drop

Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Gollancz | 2017 (7 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strange Weather by Joe HillIn four novellas, loosely linked by the weather, Joe Hill presents a chilling portrait of present-day American society. The effects of global warming are more and more apparent with almost each passing day but this is a little too obvious for Joe Hill to focus upon. After all, to any sane person this should be taken as read, and in fact weather plays less of a role in these stories than the title of the collection suggests, with the clear exception of Rain. Instead, Hill takes us inside our nightmares, to a place that’s almost real. The things that take place there are most certainly real – illness, gun violence, grief, prejudice, fear. Some stories contain more elements of horror than others but they’re all disturbing.

In Snapshot a young boy takes on a stranger in town, the Phoenician, who uses his polaroid camera to steal memories. This was for me the most harrowing of all four stories and it actually upset me a fair bit. Loss of memory is a terrible thing and Joe Hill portrays the pain of this exquisitely. I loved young Michael. His kindness is so touching and something of an antidote to some of the other characters that we encounter through this collection.

Loaded was inspired by ‘the massacre of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Loaded was my attempt to make sense out of our nation hard-on for The Gun’. It focuses on a mass killing in a shopping centre while the town is threatened by a deadly forest fire. It shows what happens when the bigoted, the ignorant and the aggrieved can get their hands on a gun. The fallout is extraordinary and not quite what you’d expect. I had some issues with the way that this story develops. It’s powerful stuff but its ending was troubling for me. This is the longest story in the collection and also the oldest.

Aloft is another kettle of fish entirely and lifts us out of reality. Aubrey is about to do a parachute jump. The thought alone terrifies him but he’s doing it with friends as a tribute to someone they loved who died young. He also wants to impress Harriet. But when he makes his jump something happens and instead of floating to Earth Aubrey lands on a cloud. And on that cloud what you want may come to pass. I’m not a fantasy reader and so I did struggle with Aloft, which is my fault, not the story’s.

My favourite of the four is Rain, an apocalyptic tale of rain that falls as lethal crystal needles. Thousands are killed, law and society break down. Honeysuckle loses Yolanda, the girl that she loves and her grief compels her to make a hazardous journey to let Yolanda’s father know that his wife and daughter are dead. There are horrors along the way as you can imagine. But there are also bright spots, especially with Hill’s depiction of the young boy that Honeysuckle babysits. Joe Hill says in his afterword that ‘Rain arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end-of-the-world novel The Fireman. I’m a big believer in making fun of yourself before anyone else can’.

While I found the stories mixed in their appeal, each shares in common a very important factor – the fine characterisation. It’s impossible not to feel involved with these people’s lives. Some are vulnerable and powerless, prejudiced against, but many make a stand and do the right thing. There are pleasing little digs at certain American presidents, comments on the state of society, especially in regard to its gun laws and tolerance (or lack of), but it’s the characters that give these stories life and there are a few moments that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Other review
The Fireman

Fire by L.C. Tylor

Constable | 2017 (2 November) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fire by LC TylerIt is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is ablaze. Lawyer John Grey heads out into the smoke and flames to try and help. Almost everybody is going in the other direction, escaping with what they can carry while their houses burn. Grey finds a body with somebody hunched over it who flees as Grey approaches. But the corpse is no victim of the fire. He has been stabbed.

London is looking for somebody to blame and, as the fire dies down, rumours spread of French involvement. This is the last thing the royal court of Charles II wants. The court is suspected of Catholicism. If the French did start the fire then Charles and his brother the Duke of York would be given a hefty share of the blame. And then a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, is arrested, admitting to starting the fire and also stabbing his French accomplice to death. John Grey is more than a lawyer. He is also the agent of Lord Ardlington, the Secretary of State, and Ardlington despatches Grey to discover the truth. When he interviews Hubert he finds a man barely in possession of his wits, repeating details that he has been trained to say. It’s clear that this is the work of a conspirator’s plot. And as Grey and his friend Lady Pole trace the clues deep into the smoking ruins and along London’s busy river, it becomes clear that nobody is in more danger than they are.

Fire is the fourth novel in L.C. Tyler’s John Grey series and almost ten years have passed since the events of the first novel A Cruel Necessity, which was set in 1657 during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. The series, in my opinion, got off to a slow start with the first two books but in the third, The Plague Road, everything came together and the result was an exciting, well-plotted and brilliantly witty historical mystery. I’m delighted to say that Fire is every bit as good. This is fine writing and the tension and danger of the mystery is complemented by the humour of the narrative and dialogue. The novel is set during the Restoration, a time of wit and elegance, as well as sin and debauchery, and this mood is captured so well in these books. Fire made me laugh out loud more than once, something that doesn’t happen too often.

John Grey is a fascinating character with a history as convoluted as you’d expect in a society that is still picking up the pieces after the Civil War of the 1640s and the miserable Commonwealth of the 1650s. He’s in love with Lady Aminta Pole, whose background is as complicated as Grey’s, but real life – and scandal – keeps getting in the way. These two are very easy to like, although I can’t help feeling extra regard for Will, Grey’s poor clerk and servant who seems to spend much of his time as a go-between and has more sense in his head than almost everybody else in Grey’s world.

The mystery is such a good one and the setting in London’s smouldering ruins is richly evocative. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, its firefighters and their rather ungainly machines, river crossings and the camps that are set up to house the newly homeless and hungry. The idea that tourists flocked within mere days to look at the traditional starting place for the fire on Pudding Lane is an appealing one. This is a London crammed full of interesting personalities of all classes. This isn’t just a story about Charles II’s court. It covers all of London. And there in its middle is Grey who’s like a dog with a bone. When his teeth are dug in there’s no way he’ll let go.

Fire is a short novel – which is perhaps my only not entirely serious complaint – and it is put together perfectly. Not a word of its witty prose is wasted. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Fire of London and it’s hard to imagine anyone immersing me in these astonishing days with more skill and wit than L.C. Tyler. I can’t wait for the next.

Other reviews
A Masterpiece of Corruption
The Plague Road

The Bach Manuscript by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2017 (16 November) | 388p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bach Manuscript by Scott MarianiWelcome to the 16th Ben Hope thriller by Scott Mariani! Like most of the books in this truly brilliant action thriller series, you can read The Bach Manuscript on its own with no trouble at all. But if you’ve read and adored them all as I have done and do, then you’ll have the added pleasure of knowing Ben’s colourful past as well as understanding a little about what makes this extraordinary man tick. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Ben’s life has moved on in so many ways since the early books.

Things have settled down a little for Ben Hope. For once he has the chance to develop his security business in France and that means a brief visit to England to investigate some new military hardware. It also gives him the opportunity to return to the University of Oxford and Christ Church College for a reunion. Ben has a dose of nostalgia. Few of his friends from University are still around but there’s one, Nick Hawthorne, who Ben would love to see again. Nick is now an internationally-renowned musician and he will be giving a recital at the reunion and Ben does not want to miss it. At a private party at Nick’s house in North Oxford, while Ben and Nick enjoy catching up, Ben spots an old and stained musical manuscript. Nick is adamant it’s a fake but Ben isn’t so sure – it certainly looks like it could be a lost work by Johann Sebastian Bach. And that stain on it – could it be blood?

But when Nick is found brutally murdered at his home, the manuscript stolen, Ben is determined to avenge the death of his friend and that means tracking down the priceless manuscript. The hunt takes Ben across Europe into the domain of one of the most evil characters Ben has ever faced, which is certainly saying something. The clues unravel the past of this manuscript which was lost during Europe’s darkest days – the Holocaust.

I’ve been reading Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope thrillers for years and I think it’s fair to say that this is my favourite of all series and Ben Hope is quite possibly my favourite of all heroes. Over the years we’ve gone through so much with Ben, we’ve experienced all of the heartache and trauma, as well as love and friendship. I can’t thank Scott Mariani enough for writing two of these thrillers a year. My habit is being kept well fed and it appreciates it. The Bach Manuscript went to the top of my reading pile when it arrived, as every single one of these books always will.

The first third or so of The Bach Manuscript represents a bit of a change of pace for Ben Hope. He’s reliving his past in Oxford and this gives him the opportunity to reminisce about the young man he once was while a student there. It’s fascinating to see him as he was, while loving the man he’s become (I’m rather overlooking the fact that he could kill a gang of five thugs with a single bus ticket). It also means we’re taken on a tour of Oxford. Oxford is my home town and so I’m pleased to say that the small city is presented with all of its streets and monuments in the right places. Although I must say that I was a little concerned at its depiction of bus travel in Oxford as being a violent and dangerous thing to do – not least because the bus in question is MY bus! But I did enjoy Ben’s sojourn in Oxford, especially as it took him to some of my favourite places. As a result, I retraced his footsteps on Saturday through Christ Church Meadow. So good to have Ben visit!

Once Ben leaves Oxford then we’re in more typical Ben Hope territory as he sets off in pursuit of baddies as evil as evil can be. It’s thrilling stuff and the pages race through the fingers. While this probably isn’t my favourite of stories for this series (there are sixteen of them, after all), it certainly makes the heart beat faster and I couldn’t put it down.

I love all the little touches of humour, of Ben’s humanity, and his interaction with others he meets who help or hinder him in his quest. The car chases are always particularly fun and there are more than enough explosions and gunfights to satisfy the action thriller enthusiast in me. I always enjoy the books in the series which involve a quest and that’s what we have here.

I can’t praise this series enough. I hope it never ends. If I could read them all day, everyday for a month I would. So, if you haven’t read any before, give yourselves a treat and dive in, at the beginning or with one of these later books. Ben Hope is waiting.

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
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa and Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol

Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

Headline | (2017 (16 November) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

Day of the Caesars by Simon ScarrowIt is late AD 54 and the Emperor Claudius is dead. Rumours of murder are circulating around Rome but few dare to utter them outloud. His adopted son Nero now wears the purple, supported by his ambitious, dangerous mother Agrippina. But he needs little of her support – he’s every bit as lethal in his own right. Claudius’s own son, Britannicus, is in a very precarious situation indeed, not least because others look to him as a possible solution to the problem of Nero.

Cato and Macro have arrived back in Rome as heroes after their mission in Hispania. Back within the Praetorian camp, they are positioned better than most to hear the rumblings spreading across the army at the turn of political events, and the lack of their promised gold. Cato, though, has other things on his mind – building a relationship with his young toddler son, Lucius – while Macro has distractions of his own. But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s emperor. They always have jobs in mind for Cato and Macro – and they’re never pretty.

Day of the Caesars is the sixteenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s hugely popular Eagles of the Empire series and it is always good news when Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro return. I’ve loved these two for years and have followed their exploits across the empire with pleasure. This time they’re back in Rome but Rome has never been more dangerous. But Rome is home for Cato and Macro and so we watch them try to put their private lives back together again after months away, finding some comfort, while at the same time we worry for them as the murky and complex world of politics and conspiracies threatens them and their plans from every side.

It’s difficult to imagine a more dangerous period in Roman history than the middle of the 1st century AD. I’ve enjoyed several novels about Nero over the last year and it’s rather refreshing that, in Day of the Caesars, no apologies are made for Nero – he’s as nasty and terrifying as history would have him. There is a scene early on which sets the tone for Nero and while I found it repulsive it certainly achieved its aim in summing Nero up. This is a man to hate. But this is Roman politics and, as such, there’s little to admire in any of the factions and nothing is straightforward. I enjoyed the tangled plot that Simon Scarrow has constructed here. It’s tense but it’s also thrilling and it has the whole of Rome in its grip.

This is most definitely historical fiction. Liberties are taken with events and with historical figures. But that matters little because this is the story of Cato and Macro – two fictional characters at the centre of events that are constructed around them. But the picture of the city of Rome itself is so well drawn, particularly its depiction of the city’s lethal poorer tenements. As usual, though, I have some issues with the author’s portrayal of women – none of the women featured here do well out of it.

In some ways, Day of the Caesars feels like a stepping stone novel. It informs us of what is going on in Rome while moving Cato and Macro from Spain to their next posting. As a result, I don’t think this is the best of the series but it’s certainly hugely entertaining, exciting and thrilling. Time spent with Cato and Macro is always time well spent and now that the sixteenth is read, I’ll look forward to the seventeenth which, just like all of the others, will go straight to the top of my reading pile.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins | 1934 (this edn 2017; 19 October) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Below you’ll find first a review from my recent re-reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Beneath it, there’s my report of one of the most extraordinary days I think I’ll ever have…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieIt is the early 1930s and there are few ways more luxurious to travel from Stamboul to London than on the glorious Orient Express. The train is full and so famous Belgian detective is fortunate to find a berth when a case he’s been working on calls him back to England in a hurry, curtailing a longed for time of rest among the wonders of the Turkish city. It is midwinter and after just a day and a night the train is stopped in its tracks by an impassable snowdrift. There is no choice but for everyone aboard to wait until help can arrive. But this can be of no concern to Mr Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the berth next to Poirot’s, for in the night he has been murdered, stabbed multiple times in his chest.

The passengers are trapped. And what a group they are, hailing from all over the world and from all walks of life, from an elderly Russian princess to a young English governess. Poirot has no doubt that amongst them he will find the killer, but which of them is it? And why are there so many clues? Too many clues for Hercule Poirot’s peace of mind.

I grew up on Agatha Christie’s novels and during my teenage years I read every single one of them (my young adult reading was Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and Arthur C. Clarke). Since then, I’ve returned to the Poirot books because these were always my favourites and, while Death on the Nile has always been the one I loved the most, Murder on the Orient Express has never been far behind.

The setting and circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express provide the perfect background for an Agatha Christie novel – the confined space, the exotic location, the limited number of suspects, the clever and seemingly unsolvable crime, the glamour, the passion. And while Agatha Christie demonstrates once more what a genius she was, the murder also gives Hercule Poirot one of his most perplexing cases as well as perhaps the biggest moral conundrum of his career.

I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express three times now and obviously I know who did it. I suspect there aren’t many who don’t – aided by the television and movie dramatisations of the novel over the years, including the most recent version directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading it again perhaps even more than I have done before. It didn’t hurt that I was reading such a beautiful celebratory hardback edition, or indeed that I actually carried it on to the Orient Express train itself, but it was a pleasure to read it in search of the clues. Knowing how it ended, I could observe Poirot at work as he interviews the passengers one by won and follows the clues.

There are elements that have aged less well than others, particularly in the regard of some characters for some nations. Snobbery is rife, class is everything, at least to some. But Poirot manages to bridge these cultural and social divides because he is an outsider and also because he’s more elegant and refined than the lot of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with this much loved novel again. I found Agatha Christie’s style refreshing, to the point, curt in places, but more often than not eloquent and elegant. It evokes a bygone world beautifully and so now the novel is as much a historical piece as a supremely successful crime novel. I enjoyed it for both and it inspired me to go back and re-read more. Hercule Poirot is extraordinary and it’s good to be reminded of this by rediscovering him where he was born – on the page.

Premiere report

On 2 November, I had a day unlike any other, all thanks to HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and Agatha Christie Ltd. I can’t thank them enough because for one day I was treated like a movie star. I think I could get used to red carpets, five star hotels, premieres, and lots and lots of champagne. All the photos below were taken by me.

The day started with something I have always wanted to do – boarding the Orient Express train at St Pancras Station in London. I’ve seen the movie and obviously read the book and now here I was sitting in one of its plush seats in the glamorous bar carriage, listening to James Pritchard discuss the legacy of his great grandmother, Agatha Christie. Across the carriage was Agatha Christie’s portable typewriter. The last time it had been on the Orient Express it had been with her.

Orient Express

It was good to hear that more adaptations may follow Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the overriding impression I was left with was how incredible and intrepid Agatha Christie had been – to have travelled across the world on her own in a time before television to places that she could not have fully imagined in advance. I’ve always been interested in the story of Agatha Christie’s expeditions with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan but she did so much more than that. Agatha Christie and her husband are buried in the beautiful village of Cholsey, not too far from me, and I regularly pay my respects.

James Pritchard

The premiere experience at the Royal Albert Hall was unforgettable. I’ve been to a fair few premieres due to my movie blogging years but this was the first time I’ve been to one as a guest and it was incredible. With my special pass, I was able to access the areas with the stars and so watch them all be interviewed on the red carpet stage by Lorraine Kelly. It seems a long time ago since I used to go and see Kenneth Branagh on stage with his Renaissance theatre company. Now look at him! I was particularly thrilled to see Daisy Ridley and she looked beautiful.

Daisy Ridley
Daisy Ridley
Kenneth Branagh

The film itself was thoroughly entertaining although I was a bit overcome by the atmosphere inside of the Royal Albert Hall (I collected my degree in the Hall in another century and this was my first time back), the occasion, the sound system and by the amount of champagne. I was interested in the ways in which the film veered from the novel but I thought that the addition of the viaduct and the use of the outdoors for one of the most important scenes were inspired. I thought Branagh was fantastic as Poirot – completely different from David Suchet and Albert Finney (certainly from Peter Ustinov). This Poirot is a man of action as well as a genius with his little grey cells. The practicality of the moustaches is another matter entirely.

Johnny Depp
Josh Gad
Kenneth Branagh
Judi Dench
Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary day and one I’m so thrilled and grateful to have experienced. It means a lot to me that this was all to celebrate Agatha Christie, an author who has played such a significant part in developing me as a reader and lover of books. Many years have passed and it’s so good to think that films such as this may give new generations a nudge to read and love Agatha Christie’s mysteries, just as their parents and grandparents have done.

Agatha Christie's TypewriterPoirot choccies

Thanks again to HarperCollins (Fliss), Twentieth Century Fox (Olivia) and Agatha Christie Ltd (Lydia) x