Fatal Promise by Angela Marsons

Bookouture | 2018 (16 October) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fatal Promise by Angela MarsonsFatal Promise, the ninth in Angela Marsons’ brilliant DI Kim Stone series, follows on directly from its predecessor Dying Truth, and, although much of its story stands alone, I really think you need to read Dying Truth first. For things have happened which mean that nothing will ever be the same for Kim Stone and her team and the impact of this will be all the greater for the reader who was left shocked by the ending of the previous novel. Having said all that, Fatal Promise does make it clear what has happened.

Kim Stone is almost recovered from her injuries and is returning to work. Not that she’s really ready. She has so much pain in her leg. But the pain in her heart is greater. She needs to be back with her team, now so much smaller than it was, and each of them feels as she does. But criminals carry on as normal committing their crimes, and it’s no time at all before Kim must find another killer. Gordon Cordell, a doctor involved in Kim’s last case, is found murdered in a local wood. Shortly afterwards, Cordell’s son is injured in a terrible car crash. Then the body of a woman is found. All of them have links to the local hospital. Stone doesn’t believe in coincidences. She knows that there must be a pattern and, now that the killer is getting a taste for it, there seems to be no end in sight. The pressure builds and it doesn’t make it any easier that a new team member is forced on Stone. There are some shoes that can never be filled.

I love the Kim Stone series so much, Angela Marsons is an extraordinary plotter. Her stories are deliciously complex and entangled and the way in which they come together is always never less than brilliant. The stories are peppered with twists that genuinely surprise and always work. They don’t feel forced and they’re all the more shocking for it. But the books also excel because of their characters. Kim Stone is a marvellous creation. She has a rage in her, she will catch the bad guys at almost any cost, she plays around with the rules, she can be immensely difficult, particularly to those who work with her or who are her superior officers, but she is loved and respected by so many. The loyalties that she has built up over the years continue to thrive and she can always find that useful favour to call in.

But alongside stubborn, determined Kim Stone we have her team – Stacey and Bryant – and they’re every bit as good to know. Bryant’s relationship with Stone is dealt with particularly well here, as is Stacey’s relationship with the new member of the team. Stacey, such a strong element of the series, is given time on her own here as she follows the clues to her own case involving a missing teenager. This is such a good story and complements the rest of the novel perfectly. Kim Stone is the mother hen who realises that she must allow Stacey some time to shine on her own. Everything is driven by very real emotions and motives. It all feels psychologically true.

Although grief is the dominant emotion of Fatal Promise, it is not a particularly gloomy book. There’s the usual wit and repartee. Angela Marsons writes so well. The dialogue feels genuine and believable, and it’s all the funnier for it. It’s also a corking story! There are so many red herrings. It’s such a satisfying puzzle. And I didn’t guess any of it. This isn’t a read to dally over. I read the book so quickly the pages almost turned themselves. Fatal Promise is another thoroughly satisfying novel from Angela Marsons. I don’t know how she does it! Time after time, she excels. We are so lucky to have this series.

Other reviews
Dead Souls
Dying Truth

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The Lost Daughter by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2018 (18 October) | 456p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Daughter by Gill PaulWhen the Romanovs, the overthrown ruling family of Russia, arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1918 they could have had no idea that this would be their final prison, that there could be no escape. At least, not for all. Maria Romanov, one of the Grand Duchesses, drew people to her with her naturally friendly nature. While this could lead to grief, it could also lead to love and to salvation. More than one of the guards fell for Maria but one in particular risked his life for her. This is the story of what might have been.

This isn’t the first time that Gill Paul has written a novel about the Romanovs. In the wonderful The Secret Wife, the life of another of the daughters, Tatiana, was reimagined. Now, in the centenary of their murder, the author turns to her sister Maria, giving her another chance of life. Events from the earlier novel are referred to here so it exists in the same historical universe. It adds another poignancy as Maria ceaselessly wonders what happened to Tatiana.

The Lost Daughter is an enchanting novel, quite melancholic at times, and extremely hard to put down. Maria is brought to life so beautifully. We live years of her life with her as she endures so much, her memories of her grand childhood growing ever fainter as she must deal with the reality of living in a Russia that wanted her dead and killed her family. But, as the years pass, things don’t get easier as the novel takes us through decades of Russian history, through the poverty and hardship of Lenin’s rule, through the terror of Stalin, and through the misery of the Second World War – the Siege of Leningrad forms a central part of the novel and it was this section that kept me up until so late into the night. It is utterly compelling.

As with The Secret Wife, there is a parallel story going on here. In this strand, we follow Val, an Australian woman living in Sydney who has an elderly, bitter, haunted Russian father. Val’s own life is difficult. She has an abusive husband. Her mother was driven away by her father. But now Val is breaking free and to do that she must understand her origins and what it is that tormented her father on his deathbed. It will lead her on a fascinating pilgrimage to the Soviet Union.

I must admit that I didn’t find the early chapters in Val’s life easy to read. Domestic violence is a subject I prefer to avoid in fiction but, once that section was past, I became thoroughly involved in Val’s tale. The chapters covering Maria’s life were the most engrossing – and how could they not be? What a story! – but I became increasingly intrigued by Val’s role in the novel, especially towards the end when everything comes together in such an emotionally charged and perfect way.

The Secret Wife is so steeped in 20th-century Russian history, mainly focusing on St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it became. I’ve visited the city several times (when it was Leningrad), including the mass graves from the Siege, and I think that Gill Paul captures its spirit – resilience, fortitude and suffering. I found it really emotional. But the novel also has the feel of a saga. Several generations are covered as Maria’s family grows and each must face their own challenges while finding their own peace and love. The role of the family is central to this book, especially the relationship between parents and children. Maria has lost so much and yet she has so much to give. I wept for her, and with her, more than once. Maria is the perfect subject for this gorgeously written, emotional, glorious, sweeping tale of tragedy, survival and Soviet Russia.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2018 (26 July) | 421p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser CollardThe Rebel Killer picks up exactly where The True Soldier finished, on a battlefield in an America torn apart by civil war. This review assumes that you’ve read The True Soldier and need to know what will happen next to our hero, Jack Lark.

It is 1861 and Jack Lark, fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, has seen his side lose. The battlefield is buried beneath his fallen comrades. Jack and Rose must flee for their lives as the Confederate army consolidates its victory and marches on. But the fates have a habit of turning on Jack Lark and now is no different. Jack encounters Major Lyle and from that moment on Jack has a new enemy and he has a new passion in his life – it is called vengeance and it drives him on with a rage he has not known before. In order to pursue his goal, Jack must once again swap sides and identities. He will fight with the Confederates. But poor luck pursues him. He must depend on others for his survival as his wounds, both physical and mental, increase. His destiny leads him on to one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, the battle of Shiloh.

The Rebel Killer is the seventh novel in a series that has taken us to many of the most significant battle arenas of the mid 19th century – in the Crimea, India, the East, Italy and now to America. Jack Lark is our hero, a man who sheds identities like a coat (military issue) and who can never forget his roots in a gin palace in one of London’s poverty-stricken, crime-wracked rookeries. His drive to survive is extraordinary and he uses war to do it. He has a talent for soldiering that at times, particularly as he gets older, frightens him. Is he a devil?

In this latest adventure, which takes us into the heart of America’s bloody conflict, we see Jack Lark at his most despondent and the result is a book that is the darkest and most violent of the series. There is ice in his veins. He wants to inflict death. He barely cares if he survives. And he kills ruthlessly. Jack is clearly traumatised and in danger of being overcome by wounds and sickness. He is saved more than once, relying on the kindness of others for his life, but he can barely acknowledge their care. It is as if Jack Lark has to be rebuilt. And, as with many of the Jack Lark books, a woman will be needed to help him. Whether he will appreciate her or not, is another matter.

The violence and darkness of The Rebel Killer is a reason why, although I enjoyed it very much, it isn’t my favourite of the series. It is, though, every bit as well written and researched as the others and is such a fast and exhilarating read. It is most certainly grim as Jack continues to follow his bloody path to vengeance. I really felt for him, but I felt for Martha more. As the novel progresses, though, Jack tries to shake off the devil inside him and so there is a sense that he is healing but the journey that he has undergone was so bleak. The violence was a little too much for me at times, I must admit, but then I am very squeamish.

Having said that, in The Rebel Killer, yet again, Paul Fraser Collard shows what a fine writer of military historical fiction he is. The historical detail is very impressive, showing us the full horror of the American Civil War. The weaponry and battle formations are fascinating. We’re also shown something of how complicated it all was – with friend fighting friend, brother fighting brother – and that there was more to it than slavery or union. There is a chaos. The uniforms are similar. People accidentally kill their own side. The fact that Jack can swap sides as an outsider and then kill people he once fought alongside is a shocking indicator of how terrible civil war is and how disturbed Jack is. War is also the perfect situation in which to hide secrets or past lives, as is shown by both Jack and Martha.

There are sections that I really loved, particularly the time that Jack spends recovering in Martha’s house with her father. And also the time when he is cared for by a slave. Jack is vulnerable for much of the book and it’s in those times that we see how war affects those who have such small voices in history – the woman and the slave. I’ve always enjoyed the female characters in this series – there are more of them and in more significant roles than I’m used to in military historical fiction – and Martha is one of my favourites.

The Rebel Killer is one of those adventure novels you don’t want to put down. It is so well written, the prose flows along and it is extremely exciting! I read half of it in one sitting late into the night and then read the other half the next day, devouring it in big satisfying gulps! I’m hoping that in his next adventure, Jack Lark can be a little kinder to himself (and to those around him) and I’m intrigued to know what his next step will be.

Other reviews and features
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
The True Soldier
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

Under the Ice by Rachael Blok

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 November) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Under the Ice by Rachael BlokOne very cold December, just a few days before Christmas, the body of a young girl is pulled from an ice-bound lake in St Albans. Leigh Hoarde had been reported missing and this is the outcome that everybody dreaded. DCI Maarten Jansen and DI Imogen Deacon are at a loss. Their best lead comes from the dead girl’s neighbours, Jenny and Will Brennan. Will saw a suspicious car, which interests the police, but Jenny feels such a closeness to Leigh. She can sense her presence. She is drawn to the lake, she sleepwalks there at night, she can hear a voice calling for help, to save her. And when another girl goes missing, one even closer to Jenny, DCI Jansen begins to wonder if Jenny knows more than she’s saying and that perhaps she is not just an innocent witness.

I was immediately drawn to Under the Ice. I love mysteries set at the heart of winter, when there’s snow on the ground and the nights are long and nothing feels safe. In fact, I love wintry mysteries for the very reasons that I dislike winter! Just as appealing as the ice-cold setting is the location in St Albans – the first time I’ve read a novel set in this fascinating and ancient city.

Everything starts so gently. There’s a dreamlike mood which captures perfectly Jenny’s state of mind. She is a new mother, sleep-deprived and focused entirely on her little baby son. She’s extraordinarily sensitive to the grief the community is suffering as one girl is found dead and another is stolen. But, as the novel moves on, it becomes increasingly tense, disturbing, melancholic and intensely spellbinding. There’s much about the story that feels other worldly and that’s all thanks to the author’s genius in creating mood, intensifying it with the icey, dark weather and the approach of Christmas.

Rachael Blok is equally adept at creating character. We get to know Jenny so well and we feel such empathy for her. This is a fine portrait of a new mother, almost permanently physically attached to her helpless baby. The theme of mothers and daughters has such a powerful presence in these pages. But my favourite character in Under the Ice is Detective Chief Inspector Maarten Jansen, who has settled in England with his English family but he is being tempted back to Rotterdam. But he knows that his future depends on his success with this case. Maarten is a fascinating man. He has a past, as you’d expect, but it doesn’t overshadow him. Instead, Maarten’s focus is on his family, his colleagues and to the girls and their parents. He is warm, popular but there is no doubt that he’s struggling with this case. I really hope we see him again.

The plot is great! It’s full of twists and turns and surprises and it did indeed keep me guessing – quite a rarity, these days. I love how it all comes together. Richly atmospheric and moody with an intriguing, unusual detective and a haunted main character, it works itself under your skin and is beautifully written from start to finish. Rachael Blok is most definitely an author to watch.

Target by James Patterson

Century | 2018 (15 November) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Target by James PattersonWhen the funeral cortege of the President of the United States processes through the streets of Washington DC one freezing late January morning, psychologist Alex Cross is there to watch. With Alex is his entire family, including his wife Bree Stone, DC Metro’s chief of detectives. It’s a sombre day but America’s mourning is about to be cut short, just a few days later, by a sniper’s bullet which strikes at the heart of the country’s government. Alex is called in to help the FBI with their investigation and he begins to suspect that the assassination was not a one-off, that it is just the beginning of something much, much larger, that could threaten everything. Alex Cross has faced some tough cases in his time, to put it mildly, but nothing like this.

Target is the 26th novel in what is perhaps James Patterson’s most famous series, the one featuring Alex Cross. I’ve dipped in and out of this series over the years but I think you could very easily read Target without any previous knowledge of these books at all. There are links to earlier novels, but nothing that gets in the way too much (there is just one element, which I think might leave you in the dark), and it’s very easy to pick up on the close bond of the Cross family, which is such a theme of the series. Alex Cross is not a man who operates alone. His family is the most important thing in his life and they’re always in his thoughts. In this case, he’ll need the comfort that they bring.

I love political action thrillers like this and Target is such a good one. It moves so fast and it is thoroughly exciting! Much of the novel is narrated by Alex Cross but the rest moves between a whole range of different characters, mostly killers. You do have to keep your wits about you remembering names as we move back and forth but it’s well worth the effort as we’re taken deep into the thought processes of an assassin. The political element is fascinating and the whole thriller seems frighteningly timely and topical. The situation here is extreme but no less worrisome for that. The cool, calm head of Alex Cross is just what is needed.

Target is a hugely entertaining, tense and action-packed thriller. Its multiple threads wind through the novel and they knit together perfectly, driven along by intense short chapters. It’s so fast and exhilarating to read. I love this sort of book when it’s done well and this is one of the best I’ve read in quite a while. James Patterson knows exactly what he’s doing and which boxes to tick, and Target is the perfect example of a Patterson thriller at its very best.

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With Marshall Karp – NYPD Red 5
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Emperor Rome: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George

Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret GeorgeIt is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.

The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.

Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.

Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.

The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.

Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.

I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.

I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘autobiographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.

Other review
The Confessions of Young Nero

The Rebel’s Revenge by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2018 (15 November) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rebel's Revenge by Scott MarianiBen Hope is back! The Rebel’s Revenge is the 18th novel in a series that has seen Ben Hope wreak havoc across the globe (especially on hire cars) as he does his best to save it. The latest thriller is self-contained and stands alone brilliantly so you’d have no trouble picking this one up even if you haven’t read the others. Although, once you’ve done so, I really hope you go back and read Ben’s earlier adventures. This is my favourite series of thrillers in all the world, my choice for a Desert Island, and I wouldn’t and couldn’t be without them. The Rebel’s Revenge yet again proves why.

Ben Hope has a serious day job. He owns a camp in France that trains military operatives in the rescue of hostages. Holidays aren’t something that Ben does too often but he’s grabbed the chance to visit Louisiana to see his favourite saxophonist in what is likely to be his final performance. But, yet again, the fates have something else in mind for Ben Hope. When he is wrongly accused of a terrible murder, he must go on the run to find the true killers and clear his name. The victim was killed with a sabre, a sword first used during the American Civil War. By chasing the history of the sword, Ben will find himself immersed in the secrets of this remote part of Louisiana where, for some, the Civil War never ended while for others it can never be forgotten.

It’s a fabulous story. Ben is on unfamiliar ground and I was every bit as fascinated as he is as Ben learns about the American Civil War, Cajun culture (including the food that Ben comes to love so much), the legacy of slavery and the deep warmth of many of its people – as well as the absolute cruelty of others. Perhaps there’s a little here that feels like a stereotype but I enjoyed so much the way in which the story is put together. There’s so much going on and yet again Ben must overcome villains that seem to compete with one another to be the most evil. The Louisiana setting is so richly evoked. This is a book steeped in mood and atmosphere. And it is extremely exciting!

I could rave about these thrillers all week but it’s worth saying that while some mystery thrillers have a tongue-in-cheek air to them, there’s nothing like that about the Ben Hope thrillers. These action-packed adventures are tense, often violent, revealing cruelty in many of its monstrous and sinister forms. They are impossible to put down and they are all brought together with the fantastic creation that is Ben Hope, the blond ex-SAS Major whose personal life has brought him such torment because he knows far better how to deal with bad guys than he does with those who love him. He’s honourable, brave, likeable, even though death stalks him. He drinks like a fish. And I love him. In the The Rebel’s Revenge, Ben leaves his personal life, his family and friends behind him for a solitary adventure in which he will meet new people to care for and fight for. Ben always cares so much.

I am so pleased that two Ben Hope novels a year are published. I’d happily have one a month but two a year is a huge achievement and one I really appreciate. Ben Hope returns next May in Valley of Death. Fantastic!

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
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript

Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher