Category Archives: Reviews

Tuesday Falling – S Williams

Tuesday FallingTuesday Falling is one of those books that reminds you of lots of other stuff, but manages to be totally its own thing.

The blurb is going underground:

You’ve never met anyone like Tuesday. She has suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of men, and so has taken it upon herself to seek vengeance. She wants to protect and help others like her, to ease their suffering. A force to be reckoned with, she lives beneath the streets of London in the hidden network of forgotten tunnels that honeycomb the city – and this is her preferred hunting ground.

When Tuesday is connected to a series of brutal attacks on gang members, DI Loss takes on the investigation. A burned-out detective still suffering the devastating effects of the unsolved murder of his daughter three years earlier, the case starts to hit close to home. Because soon Loss will discover that Tuesday could hold the key to uncovering the truth about what happened to his daughter…

There’s a powerful cartoon energy to Tuesday Falling. If you like your thrillers grounded in reality, then it’s not going to be for you. It has a quirky cinematic panache to it, and it plays out as on a widescreen with carnage, explosions and techno-gear, and lost tunnels beneath the city and civil disobedience — the beginning of the book when Tuesday takes out some oiks on a tube train is a doozy — and at the heart of it is the kind of role any young actress would die for.

Tuesday herself is a devious amalgam of Lisbeth Salander, Alan Moore’s mysterious anarchistic revolutionary V and the Powerpuff Girls, with a little bit of Tank Girl thrown in. She’s a remorseless ExpendaBelle, and Williams has a lot of fun teasing her next ruthless move against the assorted scumbags and Big Bads who ruined her life.

As a character, Tuesday doesn’t develop as you’d like – she’s one of those remote clever clogs who knows everything there is about all sorts of high tech death-dealing weaponry and computer whatnots. Despite her horrific backstory, a bit more vulnerability would perhaps give us more of an emotional investment in Tuesday. But, instead, Wiiliams cleverly gives a character arc to the jaded DI Loss, an all too human cop, who finds he may have a startling connection to the vigilante.

There’s plenty of brutal violence — with a whole swathe of arrogant, testosterone driven yoofs getting their come-uppance in a myriad of unpleasant and gory ways, and the carnage stays, just about, on the right side of glib — and a ton of gleeful swearing, which is interesting because there’s a strong dystopian YA vibe to Tuesday’s feminist odyssey.

There’s a lot to like in Tuesday Falling. Williams has invented an iconic heroine for our times, and he has a very particular sense of his city, London — part Hitchockian chic, part kidulthood gang playground — and it’ll be fun to see what he does next with his singular and deadly protag.

Many thanks to Killer Reads for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that S Williams will be giving us the intel on his remarkable heroine Tuesday, next week.

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The Killing Lessons – Saul Black

The Killing LessonsSaul Black is the amusing pen name of a rather well-known author who has thought, to hell with it, I’m going to write a rather good serial killer novel:

The blurb really ought to reconsider its decision to live in the woods

When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper’s isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it’s the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it’s just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.

For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of corpses – women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them – has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she’s losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.

But the slaughter at the Cooper farmhouse didn’t quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena’s 10-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more terrifying than what she’s running from.

There’s no great mystery about Saul Black’s identity, his publisher Orion is quite happy to tell the world it’s Glen Duncan, acclaimed author of the Last Werewolf and I, Lucifer. And who, after all, can blame it? Duncan has taken to his new genre like a duck to water. His debut serial killer novel is  thrilling and devastating.

Duncan’s writing is succulent, like raw steak. He really likes gnashing into a good sentence. His prose is big and brash and full of lurid melodrama. And who, after all, can resist a bit of lurid melodrama? His characters, good and evil, are haunted by own terrible desires and urges and failures, which makes for compelling reading.

The Killing Lessons is intense and violent. Brutal, actually. Right from the very beginning, Black shows the reader extreme and inexplicable violence — against characters he has lovingly taken the time to get us to care for — and it’s those terrific characters, the ones who survive and the ones who don’t, who give The Killing Lessons a classy shine.

As usual, it’s the devil who plays all the best tunes. Alpha killer Xander and his beta pal Paulie are grotesquely fascinating antags, stone-cold predators. If they weren’t so vile, they would make a strangely endearing comic partnership.

Black’s FBI heroine Valerie Hart is more bog-standard. She’s damaged goods, an alcoholic, and it’s here where Black stumbles slightly for me. The Killing Lessons contains many of the more familiar serial killer tropes from the straight-to-DVD bucket. The damaged protag who’s this close to getting taken off the case, the remote cabin the middle of nowhere, the caged woman who fights back. There’s even the elderly sheriff who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time on his day off. One plot strand, morever, stays in an uncomfortable holding pattern for the entirety of the book, until it eventually rejoins the main narrative.

However, what’s not in doubt is that Black takes these familiar moments and gives them a nail-biting energy and momentum. The climaxes come crashing one after the other as the book near its conclusion. There’s a lot to love In The Killing Lessons. It takes the reader crashing through the trees and undergrowth at full-pelt. This is genre writing at its very best. Often stylish, breathtaking, gut-wrenching, and heartbreaking, and that’s all you can ask. Saul Black, indeed.

Many thanks to Orion for the review copy. We’re delighted to say that Saul — Glen — will be talking about The Killing Lessons and, of course, his writing regime, in our Intel interview next week.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse — Piu Marie Eatwell

I don’t usually The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpsedo non-fiction, but I made an exception for The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse, and I’m sure glad I did.

The blurb is in contempt of this court:

The extraordinary story of the Druce-Portland affair, one of the most notorious, tangled and bizarre legal cases of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

In 1897 an elderly widow, Anna Maria Druce, made a strange request of the London Ecclesiastical Court: it was for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, T.C. Druce.

Behind her application lay a sensational claim: that Druce had been none other than the eccentric and massively wealthy 5th Duke of Portland, and that the – now dead – Duke had faked the death of his alter ego. When opened, Anna Maria contended, Druce’s coffin would be found to be empty. And her children, therefore, were heirs to the Portland millions.

The legal case that followed would last for ten years. Its eventual outcome revealed a dark underbelly of lies lurking beneath the genteel facade of late Victorian England.

The Dead Duke –- I’m really too busy a person to write out the title in its entirety –- is one of those real-life stories to file under you couldn’t make it up, a kind of true life melange of The Prestige, Bleak House and Rich Housewives of Portland Square. It is proof positive that the Victorians, terrific engineers and Empire builders though they undoubtedly may have been, were quite, quite potty.

Eatwell applies a polite sprinkling of artistic license to colour her prose with the odd descriptive detail, but mostly the story is told in a linear fashion, with a number of entertaining diversions. It’s a story that jinks and twists as a colourful multitude of Victorian scoundrels, chancers and ne’er do wells crawl out from under various rocks to chance their arms in the tangled legal system.

The court case, to decide whether the reclusive Duke of Portland –- the so-called ‘burrowing Duke’ for his habit of building tunnels and rooms beneath his estate –- lived a double-life as a wealthy businessman, managed to drag on for a decade. Once T.C. Druce’s adamant daughter-in-law opened proceedings, a motley collection of chancers flocked from various parts of the globe like moths to a bulb to get involved. Druce’s children energetically fought the claim, and no wonder. If the case ultimately doesn’t go in the direction you hoped, it — and the author’s thorough research — throws up enough skeletons and surprises to make the Prince Consort’s waxed moustache twitch.

As you can imagine, the newspapers eagerly followed every lurid twist and turn in the case. The story was seized upon by whippersnapper young newspaper The Daily mail –- described at the time as ‘written by office boys for offices boys.’ Goodness only knows the bitter vitriol the Victorian ladies and gentlemen would have heaped upon the litigants should they have had access, one hundreds years early, to an online comments forum.

The Druce case illustrated the Victorian preoccupation with secrecy and duality –- that nagging sense that aristocracy and privilege was often a sinister façade for a degenerate lifestyle. Many of the claimnants and witnesses in the case were banged up in lunatic asylums, others went bankrupt, and Eatwell’s narrative features often unwilling cameos by noted Victorians.

The Dead Duke is gripping stuff. It’s hugely readable, written — and best read — with an eyebrow arched high, and beautifully researched. It’s proof, as if we needed more, that if it’s strangeness you’re looking for, fiction should never attempt to play billiards against the truth.

The Dead Duke, etc, is available right now in hardback. Many thanks to Head Of Zeus for the review copy. I am pleased to announce to the court that Piu Marie Eatwell takes the stand later in the week to answer probing questions about the fascinating Druce case, so make sure you’re in the gallery for that.

The Wrong Girl – David Hewson

The Wrong GirlWe’re reviewing today. Bring your passport and a change of pants. David Hewson’s The Wrong Girl is the second in his series of novels to feature his Dutch cops Vos and Bakker.

The blurb loves a bit of argy-bargy:

Sinterklaas, a beaming, friendly saint with a white beard, was set to mark his arrival in Amsterdam with a parade so celebrated it would be watched live on television throughout the Netherlands. Today the crowds would run into three hundred thousand or more, and the police presence would top four figures. The city centre was closed to all traffic as a golden barge bore Sinterklaas down the Amstel river, surrounded by a throng of private boats full of families trying to get close.

Amsterdam is bursting at the seams with children trying to get a glimpse of their hero and families enjoying the occasion. The police are out in force, struggling to manage the crowds on one of the busiest days of the year.

Brigadier Pieter Vos is on duty with his young assistant, Laura Bakker, when the first grenade hits. As Sinterklaas prepares to address the crowds, a terrorist incident grips the heart of the city. In the chaos a young girl wearing a pink jacket is kidnapped.

But the abducted child isn’t the daughter of an Amsterdam aristocrat as the terrorists first thought. She’s the daughter of an impoverished Georgian prostitute, friendless and trapped in the web of vice that is Amsterdam’s Red Light District. As the security forces and the police clash over the ensuing investigation, the perpetrator’s horrifying demands become clear. Vos, trapped in a turf war with state intelligence, tries to unravel a conspiracy that reaches from the brothels of the city to the hierarchy of the security services.

And at its heart lies an eight-year-old girl, snatched from a loving mother and then ferried from one criminal lair to the next. Her life in the balance as Vos and Laura Bakker struggle to uncover the shocking truth behind her abduction. What is the life of one immigrant child worth in the greater political game emerging around them?

So David Hewson has got form for this kind of European thriller. He’s the king of Eurocrime, the guy who wrote the Nic Costa thrillers, set in Italy, and three adaptations of The Killing TV series. If you’re going on a coach trip across the continent, he’s the guy you want behind the wheel. He never takes any unnecessary detours, the story slips into automatic and it carries you towards the climax with barely a bump in the road.

Amsterdam is at once familiar and strange in The Wrong Girl. Hewson doesn’t overload the story with research, but drops the odd cultural detail into his precinct. The little girl is abducted at Amsterdam’s annual Sinterklaas celebration, with its traditional — and increasingly controversial — parade of blacked-up helpers, the Black Petes.

The political backstory in The Wrong Girl never becomes a drag on the forward momentum. The dialogue is crisp and excellent, and the characters are sharply drawn. Pieter Vos, who was introduced in The House Of Dolls, is a stoic and melancholy protag, and his team of Dutch coppers are admirably human in their failings.

But it’s the guest cast who compel. Hewson gives them depth an pathos. The wrong girl proves to be a handful for her captors, and her stricken — and determined — mother Hanna Bublik gives the pages an unpredictable energy whenever she appears. Hewson imbues another of his characters, Henk Kuyper – a cold and manipulative fellow – a sorrowful dignity. Minor players – such as the vile Thompson Twins – get their moment to shine.

If I’ve got a criticism, it’s that everything in The Wrong Girl unfolds with the same steady rhythm, whether it’s Vos smoking a cigarette on his canal boat or a police raid on a house, a scene that comes and goes with the blink of an eye. I’d like to have seen Hewson mix it up a bit. Take the narrative out of cruise. Speed it up, slow it down, tensely build forthcoming events, but this brisk rhythm only really changes at the exciting climax when he provides a final sting in the tail to send the reader on their way.

But you’re in safe hands here. The Wrong Girl is an engrossing and intelligent thriller, and something of a page-turner.

Thanks to Macmillan for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that David Hewson will be here later in the week to give us the intel on Vos, Bakker and the dark heart of Europe.

The Evil Inside – Philip Taffs

The Evil InsideIt seems to me that horror fiction works best when it comes from within us. Haunted houses and possessed dolls and evil videotapes are all very well, but true horror comes from the most dangerous place of all — deep down inside. The Evil Inside by Philip Taffs cranks up the psychodrama to number eleven as it takes us inside the mind of a man who may or may not be losing his shit, big-time.

The blurb isn’t takings its meds:

A new millennium: On 31 December 1999, Guy Russell arrives in New York along with his fragile wife and their young son. A painful tragedy has led them to swap Melbourne for Manhattan, and seek a fresh start.

A new beginning: With a new job secured at a thriving Midtown firm, and temporary residence obtained in the Upper West Side’s Olcott Hotel – a landmark with a morbid history of its own – Guy feels it is finally the time to lay his troubles to rest.

A new nightmare: Yet something will not let him. A sinister evil from Guy’s deep-buried past is scratching its way back into his present, while the behaviour of his son, Callum, is becoming more and more disturbing and chilling. As Guy starts to believe Callum is being possessed by this dark force, those around him fear he is gradually dispossessing himself of his own sanity. And as Guy grapples with whether the evil tormenting him is in his surroundings, his son, or his own mind, he begins to push himself ever closer to the edge.

The Evil Inside is a devilish little book that leaves the reader dangling as to the true nature of the evil that attaches itself to its feckless protagonist and his young son. It’s a terrific exercise in sustained tension. Taffs never unleashes all the full-blown horror tropes, never quite brings them to the boil, so you’re never sure where it’s heading.

There’s something off about Guy from the beginning. Endearingly feckless at first, he is soon revealed to be a dreary self-destructive asshole. It’s a brave writer who makes his protagonist such a world-class shit bag, and Guy is such a monumental fuck-up that he’s almost breathtaking. He’s the kind of man who never knows when the party had come to an end, and even creeping revelations about his upbringing doesn’t really excuse his behaviour. But then, Guy isn’t exactly the first advertising character to let the side down. It’s a fine line, our sympathy for Guy — and Taffs just about manages to keep us onside.

The Evil Inside is a sinister magpie of a book. All kinds of arcane trivia an urban legends are introduced into the narrative — flavouring what is essentially a very simple, very linear narrative, a man and his family going to hell in a handcart -– about Sinatra and the Kennedy Assassination and the Olcott Hotel. And Taffs uses mails and letters and case notes and even a short story in his narrative. And because the story i set at the beginning of this century, it’s imbued with that weird millennial tension.

Taffs doesn’t quite keep all his narrative balls in the air as the story approaches its nasty end, but The Evil Inside is at times genuinely unsettleing. It’s an eccentric, unpredictable and often toe-curling ride. The climax, when all is revealed, is genuinely yuck.

Many thanks for Quercus for the review copy. Ages back — oh my god, it was the start of the year — we did an intel interview with Philip. You can see it right here. Click away, my inquisitive chums.

The Devil You Know – Elisabeth De Mariaffi

The Devil You KnowThe Devil You Know explores one woman’s paranoia and anxiety against the backdrop of a real-life murder case in Toronto.

The blurb always closes the curtains:

Rookie crime beat reporter Evie Jones is haunted by the unsolved murder of her best friend in 1982. The suspected killer was never apprehended. Now twenty-two, Evie is obsessively drawn to finding the murderer. She leans on childhood friend David Patton for help – but why does every trail seem to lead back to David’s father? As she gets closer to the truth, Evie becomes convinced that the killer is still at large – and that he’s coming back for her.

Elisabeth De Mariaffi’s stylish debut takes place at the beginning of the 90s, in an age when the print media was still dominant, when there were no mobile phones and computers shuddered louder than fridges while booting up. A terrific sense of fear and anxiety pulses through the story. It has the chilling pre-internet atmosphere of one of those gritty 70s crime movies, set on empty, untidy suburban streets piled with dirty snow.

The story is set against the investigation into real-life Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo. Evie, who’s staking out his house, is obsessed by the murder of her best friend Lianne, and her investigations into her disappearance –- and the apparent death of the man accused of her murder — takes the lid of a whole barrel of secrets involving her parents and the father of her long-suffering fuck-buddy David. Meanwhile Evie believes she’s being stalked by a man who keeps turning up at night outside her apartment. Trouble is, nobody else has seen him…

There’s a lot to like in De Mariaffi’s novel, which works as  a psychological thriller and a study of obsession and paranoia, as well as a crime novel. The author is a respected short-story writer and the narrative is full of true-life fragments and references which, more than anything, give the story an unsettling state of mind, such as Bernardo, Charles Manson and his Family, the Branch Davidians.

It’s a terse story, sometimes a little cold in the telling –- the lack of quotation marks gives it a self-consciously literary vibe — and Evie is not necessarily the most likeable of characters, but her damaged childhood gives her a compelling drive that powers the story forward.

The Devil You Know picks up a few creepy tropes and runs with them –- the cabin in the woods, the mysterious photograph, the menacing lurker –- but you get the feeling De Mariaffi uses the crime stuff as an envelope to deliver her themes. It’s a book that asks how we remember those murdered girls who have been knocked off the front-page by the latest lurid headlines –- she gives us a long list –- and examines the nagging vulnerability women carry all their lives.

Despite its subject matter, it’s good to read a book that is full of strong and complex women –- Evie, her hard-drinking newspaper boss Angie, and particularly, her likeable but secretive mother, forced to address her past when all the skeletons come tumbling out.

I’d like to have seen a few more twists and turns, I guess, but The Devil You Know is a thoughtful and anxious thriller about secrets, obsession and how predators often hide in plain sight.

Thanks to Titan for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that Elisabeth De Mariaffi will be giving us the intel on The Devil You Know, and the terror of writing her first full-length novel, later in the week — so look out for that!

The Fifth Gospel – Ian Caldwell

The Fifth GospelA number of years ago Ian Caldwell co-authored a book that became a runaway bestseller. It was called The Rule Of Four and it kind of knocked everbody’s cassocks off right at the time when it was all Da Vinci this, the Name Of The Rose that. Since then Caldwell’s spent years working working on another book. It’s called The Fifth Gospel.

Here’s the blurb:

A lost gospel, a relic, and a dying pope’s final wish send two brothers – both Vatican priests – on a quest to untangle Christianity’s biggest mystery.

2004. As Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered. The same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation.

To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels – and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron – reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death, and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down …

There’s a lot to admire in The Fifth Gospel. It’s a book about faith and religious history wrapped up in a slippery murder mystery and a twisty-turny courtroom drama, and has a kind of highbrow gravitas to it. It’s the Da Vinci Code for people with A-levels. It’s also a primer in the history of the Catholic Church for those of us who daydreamed about the tuck shop during RE.

I found the central conspiracy –- very much based around the interpretation of the gospels and the discovery of, yes, a fifth gospel –- a bit dry for my tastes. Theology is deffo not my thing, although my interest briefly flared with the introduction of our old friend The Shroud Of Turin. But the central mystery unfolds nicely as Father Alex’s investigation takes him further up the Vatican pole and the courtroom scenes, set in the Vatican’s own arcane legal system, give a maddening sense of shifting sands.

But it’s the location — The Fifth Gospel rarely steps outside of Vatican City — that’s worth the price of admission here. The city state is an absolutely fascinating place — secretive and surreal. Barely 100 acres big, it’s an amalgam of Number Six’s Village, Gormenghast, Westeros and Craggy Island.

It’s an enclosed place — like nowhere else on earth — with its own arcane laws and surreal lifestyle, its own army — the Swiss Guard — and police force and car service and shops and schools and palaces and businesses and archives. Many of its priests and its workforce — it has a population of 700,00 or so — have grown up there and will never leave.

Like the rest of the world, modern life is slowly encroaching on the Vatican’s cramped heritage. Old buildings and beautiful courtyards are paved over to provide car parking for millions of visitors, and yet it’s still a mysterious and oddly-Kafkaesque place where bureaucrats pore over the meaning of the gospels to doggedly pursue ancient internal conflicts.

Caldwell’s writing is sturdy and measured, if a little stiff sometimes — there’s one breathtaking scene in an underground boxing match that makes you think Caldwell would be rather a writer of action if he lets himself go a bit — but it’s the research that takes your breath away, the whole scope of the thing.

You get a real sense of the Vatican, and the seemingly never-ending hierarchy of clerics swishing about in big cars and the ruthlessness and the corruption and the godliness, and the lost corridors and tombs containing extraordinary treasures and the big, big resentments — never forgotten, never forgiven — which have lasted for a thousand years in this closed-off, almost dystopian society. It’s the perfect location for a conspiracy thriller and Caldwell wrings snakes-and-ladders tension out of every inch of the place.

God bless Simon And Schuster for the review copy.

We’re delighted to say that Ian gives us the intel on The Fifth Gospel later in the week. We’ve discussed this — me and the other Fellas on the Board — and have come to the conclusion that it’s probably one of the best ones we’ve ever done. Rather aptly, it you can check that out on Good Friday.