A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Doubleday | 2017 (23 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel RhysIt is the summer of 1939 and Lily Shepherd is escaping her tedious life in London for a new beginning in Australia. The new rich of Australia are desperate for servants and no-one is more sought after than a young British woman. With her fare fully paid by the government, Lily boards the ocean liner Orontes, which sets sail from England on a month-long voyage to Sydney. Lily’s eyes are to be opened as never before. Although she travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, Lily finds herself mixing with first class passengers who are also on the look out for something – excitement, an escape. Always conscious that when they arrive in Australia, these would be the people she serves, Lily is captivated by her new rich, glamorous, hedonistic friends – Max and Eliza Campbell.

But Lily has also caught the eye of others – the quiet and flirtatious Edward and the loud and fascist George. Both men compete for Lily’s attention, while watched on by the decadent Eliza and Lily’s cabin-mate Ida, a serious and earnest young woman who appears to judge Lily for every thing that she does.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers of Orontes have been separated from the world outside and it is a world in which the lights are going out – war with Germany is close, Chamberlain is conducting last minute talks with Hitler for peace, people aboard hope for the best but some fear the worst. The passengers include Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians. On board ship politics are kept at bay but most, especially George, already view these people as the enemy. And when she befriends a young Jewish woman, Lily is given a glimpse of the horrors that some have already experienced in Europe. Unfortunately, the ship cannot keep all of these horrors at bay. Not everyone who embarked in England will survive the voyage.

It might be early in the year but I already know that A Dangerous Crossing will be a key read of 2017 for me. It is sensational. I was engrossed from the very first enigmatic chapter and I stayed hooked until the end. I grabbed every spare moment to read it and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

The writing is absolutely stunning. Rachel Rhys seemingly effortlessly carries us back to 1939, a world in some ways still innocent and yet poised on the edge of blackness. Life aboard the Orontes, with its galas, dinners, parties and gossiping on deck, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the descriptions of the excursions that the passengers undertake, in such inviting places as Naples, the Pyramids and Ceylon. It’s a terrific blend of claustrophobic life aboard the ship and then the excitement of experiencing new places, the heat intensifying as the ship voyages southwards.

But the appeal of A Dangerous Crossing doesn’t just lie in its locations and historical detail but also in the passengers themselves. Lily is a wonderful companion and like so many of the other people that we meet she has a past to run from. Eliza and Max are an extraordinary couple, with a depth to them that you would never have guessed at the beginning. As the voyage continues we learn more and more about all of these people as they are forced into ever closer intimacy. At times, the revelations are beautifully touching and emotional, at times tragic. We are brought so close to it all.

It feels like these are the dying days of the old world and George in particular exhibits some shocking behaviour, especially towards local people on the excursions. But there is also a sense that the behaviour of socialites such as Eliza also belong to another time and maybe the future belongs to young women such as Lily who are escaping the past to start afresh, independent. A Dangerous Crossing does contain a mystery but it actually contains lots of mysteries, all of them engrossing and intriguing. There is so much more to this novel than you might initially think.

The story is captivating, the writing enchanting – and what a spectacular cover. A Dangerous Crossing is a triumph. Rachel Rhys is the penname of Tammy Cohen, whose unusual and original thriller When She Was Bad was such a highlight of 2016. How Tammy/Rachel can write! I have no doubt that A Dangerous Crossing will feature in my top books of 2017 post – it’s that good. I’m so excited to think where Tammy/Rachel will head next – I do know it will be wonderful.

Other review
Writing as Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

‘My nearly debut novel’ – Guest post by G.J. Minett, author of Lie in Wait

Last week, Zaffre published the paperback of Lie in Wait, the latest crime thriller from G.J. Minett. To mark the occasion, I’m delighted to host a guest post in which the author tells us about his ‘nearly debut novel’, a novel with a really rather unusual name. But first, a little of what Lie in Wait is all about:

A man is dead. A woman is missing. And the police have already found their prime suspect…

Owen Hall drives into a petrol station to let his passenger use the facilities. She never comes back – and what’s more, it seems she never even made it inside.

When Owen raises a fuss, the police are called – and soon identify Owen himself as a possible culprit – not least because they already have him in the frame for another more sinister crime.

Owen’s always been a little different, and before long others in the community are baying for his blood. But this is a case where nothing is as it seems – least of all Owen Hall…

A dark, addictive thriller, ingeniously plotted with a twist that will make you gasp, LIE IN WAIT is perfect for readers of Angela Marsons or Rachel Abbott.

‘My nearly debut novel’

Given that I’ve been writing since I was at primary school and have harboured dreams of being a published author for more years than I’d care to admit, it would be fair to say that the words ‘overnight success’ are never going to feature in any summary of my career to date. Like most authors however I had my fair share of near misses along the way and none more frustrating than with the first novel I ever completed.

I had started it while still at university, then put it not so much on the back burner as in the freezer for a few years when I started teaching. It was initially called Lobello (don’t ask!) and was a somewhat anarchic comedy about life at university – think Tom Sharpe without the polish and you won’t go far wrong. When I came back to it a few years later, it attracted the attention of an agent who was then in the early stages of his career but who is now a household name – I shan’t say who because he may not wish to reminded of those days! He really liked the novel and asked if he could represent me, which was not the most challenging question I’ve ever been asked, I have to say. He even came to visit us at home although I suppose the fact that he was also visiting one of his established authors nearby may have had something to do with it.

Most writers will understand what I went through over the next twelve months. Every so often I would receive a letter, saying which publishers had been approached. Then the rejections started coming in, most saying positive things but all ending with a few variations on the theme of ‘in the current economic climate’ and the inevitable ‘thanks but no thanks’. My agent tried, bless him. He got me to rework the prologue and opening chapters, changed the title to One Degree Under, tried just about every publishing house around until even someone with his boundless enthusiasm had to bow to the inevitable and call it a day.

He has now gone on to establish himself as a leading figure in the literary world. Lobello/One Degree Under on the other hand has been stuck in a drawer ever since and doesn’t often see the light of day. The last time I took it out and dusted it off, I have to admit there were still passages that made me laugh but the weaknesses are so egregious I can’t imagine what possessed either of us to believe it deserved to be published.

It’s served its purpose though over the years. It proved I could sustain a novel right through to the end. It was the first indication I’d ever had that someone in the literary world felt I could write. It engendered correspondence with other prominent figures which encouraged me to believe that if I ever got my act together and had a serious run at it, I might just be able to get a novel published someday. If I’d realised then how long it would take, I might have reassessed a few priorities and gone for it in a big way much earlier.

Can’t complain though. It may have been a long time coming but it’s been more than worth it. And even if it’s only because of its sentimental value, I’ll probably take that first novel out of the drawer another five or ten years from now and read it again. The words soft spot were coined for things such as that.

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For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit | 2017 (16 March) | 632p | Review copy | Buy the book

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonThe New York City of 2140 has been transformed by the First Pulse and then the Second Pulse of flooding, two catastrophic events which announced more clearly than anything that had gone before that Earth was well into its latest mass extinction level event. The environmental disaster was matched by financial collapse and political exploitation – most human life is now centred on the planet’s cities where it can be managed but many of the greatest cities are coastal, their streets flooded into canals, their skyscrapers towering like cliffs above the water, linked by high pathways, boats weaving around their roots. With land more valuable than ever before, the poorest live the most precarious lives in the intertidal zone where the collapse of old inundated buildings is a constant risk.

In New York’s flooded Lower Manhattan the skyscrapers are now themselves self-contained, self-sufficient cities, in which communities eat together and live closely. Everyone must contribute to the building’s well-being and productivity. The Met is one such tower and in it live people of every different type whose primary duty is for the good of the building, whether they care for its infrastructure, fixing its leaks, working its farms, dealing with waste, feeding one’s neighbours, putting a roof over everyone’s head, or governing its population, or entertaining them, perhaps occasionally saving their lives.

In New York 2140 Kim Stanley Robinson tells the story of the Met during a period of two or three years of crisis through the lives of a handful of people who live within its creaking walls. The novel moves between them, carrying on these separate stories, which sometimes collide but all contribute to the whole, which is a vivid and rich portrait of a building and a city during this extraordinary period of man’s descent into extinction. This isn’t an apocalyptic tale nor, as it informs us, one for happy endings. There are no endings. This is a portrait of life trying to continue in the face of disaster. There are triumphs and there is hope – mankind is not an easy species to write off – but running through the novel is a commentary, overt and explicit in places, about the damage that has been and is being done to our planet.

The grand progression of the novel is frequently interrupted by some fascinating interludes – Amelia (the star of the cloud – a kind of YouTube star of the future) who spends much of her time aboard her airship, the Assisted Migration, trying to save the lives of the world’s endangered species, all in front of the cameras; Stefan and Roberto are two boys who constantly endanger themselves while diving for treasure; Mutt and Jeff find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that threatens them all; Charlotte is the manager of the Met trying to fend off a hostile bid to buy the building. And then there’s Franklin, surely the most selfish of them all, who seems to find himself constantly in the position of having to save Stefan and Roberto, when really all he wants to do is impress the glamorous Jojo. No easy task because, well, it’s quite clear, she doesn’t like him.

The shadow of finance and business looms over the events of the novel every bit as much as the environmental message. Man continues to inflict evil and he can do this in other ways than melting the ice caps. I must be honest and admit that I did get a little lost in some of this talk of hedge funds and so on and, for me, it all went on a bit too much. But I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to finance and numbers and so this inevitably left me cold. The human stories on the other hand were fascinating and the world building is superb – this is such an immersive read, rich in layers of life and experience. While reading it, I couldn’t shake it from my mind.

New York 2140, like so many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, is clever, thought-provoking, memorable and absorbing. So many types of people can be found here, their motivations, relationships, hopes and fears shaping their lives. Instead of spaceships (as in Aurora), people are confined within a stranded city within a city, and instead of the Ice Age (as in Shaman), we have a new world evolving under environmental strain. Yet again, Kim Stanley Robinson takes the themes that fascinate him – the environment, the climate, man as a political animal – and places them in an original setting. Everything here is designed to make the reader think while being entertained. These are big themes and the overall message is, arguably, rather bleak, but it is dealt with with humour and kindness as well as with a warning finger.

A new Kim Stanley Robinson novel is always an event and New York 2140 shows yet again why. And what a fantastic cover!

Other reviews
2312
Aurora

The Return by Joseph Helmreich

Thomas Dunne Books | 2017 (ebook: 14 March; Hb: 14 March in US, 14 April in UK) | 248p | Review copy | Buy the book: UK, US

The Return by Joseph HelmreichIt’s a slow news day that brings TV news journalist Bill Allenby to the Bernasconi Hills in Southern California to report on a lunar eclipse. It’s a rare one because it coincides with the winter solstice and so Bill has a special guest for the occasion – Andrew Leland, a self-promoting ‘watered-down’ scientist who was once, many years ago, regarded as the heir to Stephen Hawking. It all goes well until Allenby notices a green spot against the now re-emerged Moon and it is getting bigger and bigger. Everyone runs except for Leland, who, before the eyes of the cameras, rises into the sky and is abducted by a giant spaceship, not to be seen again for six years but most definitely having left quite an impression on the TV audience.

When Leland turns up again six years later, walking in the desert, he denies the entire experience. But that doesn’t stop his extraordinary fame, not to mention his influence in converting hordes of people from conventional religion into another type entirely, one that has more to do with the stars and aliens than with heaven. Young scientist, and drop-out, Shawn Ferris is obsessed by Leland. He believes that he can do what nobody else can – make Leland talk about what really happened during those missing years. And so Shawn hunts Leland down. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. A secret organisation is after Leland and soon they want Shawn, too. It’s not long before both men are on the run together and Shawn realises just how big the stakes are. The mystery remains to be solved, though – what did happen to Andrew Leland on that hilltop in California?

It’s difficult to imagine a premise more enticing than the one that made me so desperate to read The Return – alien abductions, spaceships, strange technology, a splash of science, secret organisations, conspiracies, people on the run…. This book ticks all the right boxes for me and I dived into it as soon as it arrived.

On the whole, I think that The Return lived up to that promise. I found it very well written, with some interesting turns of phrase that were at times quite poignant and full of meaning. Whatever happens to Leland and Shawn through this novel has consequences for themselves and for others. There’s a sense that what is happening is of greater significance than individual lives, but to my mind I found an even larger sense that individual lives matter more than ever, and some here are discarded in ways I found extremely sad. I’m not often moved in a science fiction thriller but there were a few occasions here when I really was. This is also because I came to feel quite invested in the main characters, especially Shawn and someone else that I didn’t expect to care for at all at the beginning. I’m giving nothing more away – read it to meet these people. Leland is unknowable – and I think that’s part of the point.  I found it hard to engage with him, perhaps my only issue with the novel, but I’m sure Shawn would say the same thing.

But the main mood here is one of thrills as we pursue the hunt for Leland across much of the United States and Alicante in Spain (I particularly enjoyed the latter as I was there myself only last month!). It’s exciting stuff and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I thoroughly enjoyed The Return. I loved the story and the people caught up in it and I really, really wanted to know what happens!

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

Quercus | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy MejiaPine Valley, a small rural community in Minnesota, will not be the same without Hattie Hoffman. The 18-year-old girl, beautiful and playful, is the centre of attention both in and out of school. With ambitions of heading off to New York City to follow her dream to be an actress, Hattie has landed the role of Lady Macbeth in the school play. All eyes will be on Hattie Hoffman. But on opening night, Hattie is stabbed to death in a derelict barn on the edge of town. Close family friend Sheriff Del Goodman is given the terrible task of unravelling the tragedy, of hunting down the murderer of a girl he loved as a daughter. This is a community where everybody knows everyone. One of them, though, is keeping the biggest secret of all. Del will not rest until he uncovers it.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman might begin with Hattie’s murder but this vibrant young woman remains at the heart of the book thanks to its enticing structure. Mindy Mejia presents us with three narratives, belonging to Hattie herself, Del Goodman, and the school’s English teacher and play director, Peter Lund. We also move backwards and forwards through time, focusing on the weeks and days that led to Hattie’s death. Each of the narratives introduces us to the people of the town, often from different perspectives, building up layers of relationships, bits of which are revealed at different times. This gives extra depth to quite a few of the novel’s characters while building up the layers of Hattie’s personality. Hanging over it all is foreboding – we know just how this will end for Hattie.

Hattie’s character is key to the novel. And it most certainly isn’t straightforward. All she wants to do is be an actress, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as she plays one person off against another, time after time. She is an intriguing person, and so too are Del and Peter, but I did find her impossible to like. In fact, I think the only character in the novel that I actively did like was the sheriff, Del Goodman. I enjoyed his sections of the novel most of all.

I was engrossed by The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman but, as the novel went on, I realised that it might not give me all I expected from it. I’m used to twists and surprises in a novel such as this. This isn’t a fault of this book at all but it did mean that I was rather unexcited by the way in which the story developed, while still being caught up by its structure and mood.

The writing is of a high quality and that did keep my attention, as did its atmosphere. The rural location is very well painted indeed. I could picture Pine Valley perfectly from the descriptions. There are few places that people can meet in this town and we move between them, always being reminded that we’re seeing the same people. It makes you understand why Hattie had her dreams of escape. Pine Valley was far too small a town for Hattie Hoffman.

My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley

Bloomsbury Childrens | 2017 (9 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

My Name is Victoria by Lucy WorsleyIt is the late 1820s and King George IV is close to death. He will be succeeded by his brother William who is not expected to survive George for long. His heir, Princess Victoria, is effectively held captive in Kensington Palace by her mother and her mother’s dearest friend Sir John Conroy. Conroy is the creator of the Kensington System, a regime designed to keep Victoria constantly under observation and so secure from the plots of her royal relatives who might fancy themselves as heirs to the British throne, rather than this lonely, unhappy yet spirited child. But Conroy wants to extend his influence over Victoria even more and to do that he gives Victoria his own daughter, known to one and all as Miss V (to distinguish her from Miss Conroy, her elder sister, and from the princess), as companion, sister and, Conroy hopes, spy. But both Victoria and Miss V have minds of their own and, after uneasy and suspicious beginnings, they form the tightest of friendships.

And so begins the story of Princess Victoria and Miss V’s friendship. With half of the novel covering their years as small children, about the age of 10 or 11, the second takes us up to their later teens and the arrival of German princes and the relentless approach of fate in the shape of an ailing King William IV.

Lucy Worsley does such a fine job of spreading her enthusiasm and knowledge of history. She’s an inspirational presenter and writer, and I loved Eliza Rose, Lucy Worsley’s debut novel for young adults which told the story of Henry VIII’s tragic fifth queen, Katherine Howard. This time, the author goes back (or forward) to another period of history and once again reveals a young girl who is in many ways, despite the glamorous appearances of power, a vulnerable victim of history. Princess Victoria, though, is determined to win her freedom from the enemy, which is here represented by Conroy and the Kensington System. And history tells us how this will turn out.

But My Name is Victoria isn’t quite as it seems and it’s possibly because of this that the book lost me during the second half when we move from historical fiction to historical fantasy or alternate history. This is, though, my fault. I’ve never got on with alternate history, especially when I know quite well the period of history from which we’re diverted. However likeable, stubborn and proud she is, I didn’t recognise Princess Victoria from history, or her mother, or the German princes. The princess’s mother plays barely a role here.

Having said all that, this is a novel aimed at children, not at me. Whereas Eliza Rose seemed to me to have a wide appeal across ages – perhaps because of its themes and dire consequences, My Name is Victoria feels more comfortably targeted at younger readers. And I have no doubt that they will thoroughly enjoy it! I love the idea of children being inspired to discover history for themselves thanks to the skills of such historians and writers as Lucy Worsley. This happened to me as a child and teenager with the marvellous Jean Plaidy, whose books I still cherish all these years on. I can see parallels between Jean Plaidy and Lucy Worsley and that makes me very happy indeed. I’ll be sure to read all of the novels that Lucy Worsley produces, even though I must accept that not all of them, or indeed any, were written with me in mind!

Other review
Eliza Rose

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Headline | 2017 (9 March) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Quieter than Killing by Sarah HilaryA harsh winter has London in its frozen grip. Better to stay indoors, particularly during the long, dark nights. But danger is walking the streets. Men and women are being viciously attacked. The assaults seem random but the injuries and scars appear to be telling a different story. Even more worryingly, a young child has been kidnapped but is only reported missing weeks later. And then DI Marnie Rome’s tenants are violently assaulted in Marnie’s childhood home. Very little was stolen but what there was suggests that the thieves are sending Marnie a very personal message, one that goes back to another crime committed in that house, a crime that changed her life forever. Puzzlingly, it appears that the robbers may well have been children. But who told them what to steal? Not for the first time, Marnie Rome feels watched, scrutinised, judged.

Quieter than Killing is the fourth in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome series and it demonstrates yet again why this series is among the very best being written today. The crimes at the novel’s heart are ingenious and compelling from the very first page but they are matched by the extraordinary and involving lives of Marnie Rome and her DS, Noah Jake. It is impossible not to care for these people. They always appear real – their thoughts, feelings, fears and desires are vividly portrayed. Their relationships have depth. And so much drama and suspense!

I would really recommend that you read the other three books in the series first, just so that you can properly appreciate what Marnie in particular has had to endure and still endures. But, having said that, Quieter than Killing, as with the other novels, fills the reader in very quickly and the writing is of such high quality that you’re soon left in no doubt about the significance of what has happened before.

I think that some detective fiction can tread a fine line between back history and present crimes. It isn’t always successful, especially if it intrudes too much on the mystery at hand. There are no such issues here. These novels are every bit as much about Marnie and Noah as they are about anything else and this is never hidden.

And, as usual, there are big themes to haunt the reader and drive them relentlessly through the pages. Here we have child cruelty, parenting, retribution, justice and innocence. It’s darkly done, tragic in places, and the charged atmosphere is maintained throughout. It is utterly engrossing!

Sarah Hilary is a brilliant writer – of plot, character and mood. I stopped reading crime fiction for quite a few years for one reason or other and Sarah Hilary was one of the principal reasons why I took it up again and now love it so much. This is storytelling at its finest. I can’t resist it.

Other reviews
Someone Else’s Skin
No Other Darkness
Tastes Like Fear