Crime Thriller puzzles for the perfect escapism – Book Review

IMG_20200405_005112_028
Arrowood and the Thames Corpses by Mick Finlay

In the underbelly of 19th century London, the downtrodden and overlooked don’t have the same access to the protections and justice offered to the higher echelons of society. So while Holmes searches out treasure and unravels mysteries worthy of front page news, those living in the slums and sewers have only one recourse open to them – William Arrowood and his hired muscle Norman Barnett.

Living a hand to mouth existence themselves, Arrowood and Barnett are desperate for work, feel the impacts of their vices both financially and mentally and find themselves emotionally raw when it comes to relationships and family.

So when Captain Moon and his daughter come to them with a seemingly straightforward tale of professional rivalry and sabotage, the sleuths for hire jump at the chance to earn some earn and much needed cash. But they are not prepared for the web of murder and revenge in which they find themselves entangled.

Arrowood and the Thames Corpses by Mick Finlay is a mystery thriller for fans of historic crime: it’s no mistake that it’s set in the same universe as Sherlock, but it does offer more depth than any Arthur Conan Doyle tale I’ve read. While I enjoy a Holmes classic, I always get frustrated by the conclusions based on the flimsiest of assumptions, the giant leaps of logic and the thin characterisation. Arrowood fixes all those problems for me.

The puzzle is as complex and maze-like as you would expect, but the route to unravelling it is logical, believable and heartbreakingly tragic in some places. Neither Arrowood nor Barnett are overly likeable, drowning as they are in their self-pity, ego and often brutal manipulations of the surrounding characters, but they are fully realised, flawed men and their breadth of character pulls you into the story and engages you fully.

At times, the wealth of supporting characters can get confusing, especially the burly men and characters whose threads are left hanging. But the stench and poverty of London’s darker side is tanglible and the tragedy of people, particularly children, who are trying to scrape some semblance of a life together in the face of constant fear and danger is particularly well depicted.

Some revelations you will see coming a mile away, but mostly the information is provided on a need to know basis, allowing the story to unfold and most of the reveals to happen as Arrowood and Barnett themselves figure them out.

All in all, a grim, dark but satisfyingly escapist crime mystery.

Arrowood and the Thames Corpses was published on 2 April 2020 and is available now.

 

A wild tale of Brexit and power – Book Review of Echo Cycle

I suck at languages. My memory is awful so I can never remember vocab for any length of time. Ask me to tell you my favourite joke and I literally go blank. So as a kid I decided that rather than picking a useful live language that I was guaranteed to fail at I was going to spend 6 years at school studying Latin. This did two things: – it allowed me to have a dictionary (more of a blow by blow word list) in exams and it made me completely and utterly obsessed with ancient Rome.

To this day I couldn’t translate any Latin for you (except to tell you that Canis is dog!) but I am still completely obsessed with the ancient Roman period, so Echo Cycle by Pa

Echo Cycle

trick Edwards was exactly my bag.

In the near future (2050) Winston Monk is on one of the last trips permitted to travel abroad as Britain becomes ever more isolationist. He is hoping to make his escape more permanent before Britain shuts it’s borders for good, but he receives devastating news causing him to go on an epic bender taking out his class bullies while he’s at it.

Then while nursing his hangover and trying to build up the courage to face the consequences of his actions, something insane happens: Monk falls through a time rip, landing him in the Ancient Rome he has long obsessed over. But no matter his knowledge and instinct for survival he is a fish out of water in a brutal and unforgiving time.

Jump forward 20 years to 2070 and Monk’s only friend from school, Banks, has made it back to Rome as part of a diplomatic mission tentatively feeling out the possibilities for reopening the borders. While beginning to question the choices that Britain has made he bumps into a vagrant bearing an uncanny resemblance to the friend who disappeared 20 years earlier and with a wild and improbable story to tell involving slaves, gladiators and ancient magic.

There is so so much going on in this book that I was worried it would be too much. There’s futuristic utopias and dystopias; a heavy handed post Brexit political critique; time travel; Ancient classics; history lessons; magical realism; power mad villains; strong LGBTQIA representation; political rhetoric on refugees and environmentalism and echoes of ancient legends as well as a couple of main characters that should rightly be unlikeable. Monk is fairly arrogant and well satisfied with himself, and Banks is a drippy middle aged man who’s self-pity is not the most attractive quality…and yet: all these things are blended and swirled together so beautifully and expertly that what emerges is a mad-cap insane belter of an adventure that sweeps you along from the first page and which you are never entirely sure where it’s going to land or what’s going to happen next – even with only 20 pages to go.

Monk’s arrogance gives just enough leeway to make him a possible unreliable narrator – causing enough uncertainty that you are never sure if his crazy story is possible or if he’s, as Banks comes to believe, delusional; but it also gives him enough force to make his story compelling and possible.

Banks’ limp and apologetic presentation and transformation under the gentle encouragement of foreign nationals serves as an allegory for Britain itself as it begins to look more outward after a dark period of stubborn denial of its own flaws.

And Sporus is…cruel and loyal and mad and ethereal and completely and utterly captivating.

Echo Cycle is insane, and it’s not going to be for everyone (If you believe that Britain and America are beyond reproach and are absolutely making the right decisions at the moment, this book is not for you.). But it’s a beautiful mix of Blade Runner meets Gladiator and a ridiculously enjoyable ride.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Don’t mess with the librarians – Book Review of The Library of the Unwritten

Claire is not a Librarian, she’s an ex-human book wrangler. And in Hell’s library that’s an extreme sport.

20200211_085535Hell’s Library is vast; filled with all the books that have been dreamt up but left incomplete or never written. It’s a treasure trove of abandoned possibilities which may yet come to fruition. But every so often the books get restless of waiting and they wake up. Claire’s job is to keep them from escaping before their time and unleashing chaos; a job which has kept her so busy that she’s forgotten that she also protects this pot of powerful imagination from some of the worst denizens across the afterlife dimensions. Demons who would do anything to get their hands in the raw power contained on her shelves.

Such is the set up for The Library of the Unwritten, the first in a new fantasy series by A.J. Hackwick with a sizzling concept.

Claire and her library assistant, ex-muse Brevity, are perfect as the leads supported by nervous newbie demon Leto. Full of doubt, regrets and self-recrimination yet having to find some self-awareness and fight through their own issues to protect the inter-dimensional library system from apocalyptic upheaval.

In fact, Claire and her Library team were so charismatic and engaging that it left other characters in the dust. Ramiel and the hubris of angels was the weak link in the story for me, as I found myself desperate to get past those chapters which didn’t follow Claire. But his arc leaves him in a place that is more promising for future instalments. Hero as well spends much of his development in what feels like a set up for future books, and again one that I’m excited to see the pay off.

Despite the glamourous inter-dimensional hopping through afterlives old and older, it’s the more personal character moments and stories that give this story its heart, and a surprising amount of emotional resonance in a twist which you think you see coming, but then it ducks and weaves through its own narrative self-awareness to become something new. And better.

As a new series it’s a little slow to get going; there’s a lot of complex and very big ideas to establish and explain before the story can really start to run, but once it does find itself it soars, promising a thrilling series ahead. While I may have struggled a little to begin with, by the end I was pre-ordering the next in the series (and rather excited to find it’s out later this year).

And again I’m a sucker for anything to do with rebellious and subversive librarians!

The Library of the Unwritten is published today (11 February 2020) by Titan Books

Book Review – The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

A Black and Blue book cover with silver sparkles. Placed on a black table cloth with gemstones around it.
This may be the prettiest book that I have ever been sent.

Take a dash of Austen social comedy, the trappings of the European aristocracy and the complications of family drama and first love and throw them into a space ship some 200 years in the future and you’ve got the sumptuous romance adventure The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne.

Following a sudden global ice age that renders Earth uninhabitable, the survivors of humanity are orbiting the planet on an ageing and crumbling fleet. Against a backdrop of rising insurgency and depleting resources, the rich and privileged are coming together for their once every four years engagement ritual – the Valg – a month of intense dating events intended to shore up the wealth and power of those at the top of the social hierarchy.

Princess Leo Kolburg us reluctantly taking part in order to save her family’s ailing ship, but love is the last thing on her mind, until her first love and once fiance Elliot Wentworth appears with a new found fortune, a mysterious business venture and a large chip on his shoulder, immediately becoming the most eligible bachelor of the season.

As a romance novel the key thing I look for is the chemistry between the main romantic pairing and Leo and Elliot had it in spades. Elliot is prickly to say the least, and Leo is privileged and ridiculously blind to what’s going on around her. Both of these are recognisable Austen character types (not a surprise as The Stars We Steal takes Persuasion as its narrative template.) But where other books which try to replicate these character tropes end up making their leads unlikeable and irritating, Donne manages too walk that fine line where, despite their flaws, you genuinely root for Leo and Elliot to overcome their differences and misunderstandings and find their way back to each other.

That some side characters and their feelings may be treated as disposable in this journey is too often the case with romance stories; they are there as obstacles after all, but Donne manages to keep this on the right side of palatable with some deft character choices.

What was a little more jarring was the contrast between the archaic social rules, the traditions of yore and the grandiose space elements of sci-fi. Even with character acknowledging this and commenting on the old fashioned-ness of it all, these elements didn’t gel as much as I could have wished for. But I love Austen and I love sci-fi so I was disposed to forgiving this, suspending disbelief and just enjoying the ride.

And it was a pretty enjoyable ride. I cared about the characters, the end was satissfying and the chemistry was tangible. A definite read for fans of romance; think the 100 meets Jane Austen.

⭐⭐⭐

The Hopes and Triumphs of the Amir Sisters – Book Review

Never having read any of the Amir Sisters’ series before, despite being an avid fan of

20200111_145035

author Nadyia Hussain’s Bake Off career, I was nervous that I would be playing catch up with this – the third in the series. But I shouldn’t have worried.

Told from the point of view of Mae Amir, the youngest daughter of a large Bengali family The Hopes and Triumphs of the Amir Sisters is a humorous, heartwarming romp through family life as Mae tries to figure out her place in the world and her new position in the family she is tentatively spreading her wings from.

Struggling with loneliness and self-confidence issues Mae finds herself starting to make choices she is not always comfortable with but unable to turn to anyone for support – as she is usually the foundation they lean on – a situation which is no longer tenable as Mae grows up, and yet no one seems to have noticed.

There’s a lot going on in the story, and references made to previous stories, but I never felt lost. Despite being part of an ongoing series, Hopes and Triumphs made an excellent stand alone book (although I am keen to catch up on the rest of the series now) and Mae was a balanced compassionate heroine with an identifiable struggle of feeling overwhelmed with finding her own identity outside of a family of very big personalities.

But despite the apparent lightness of the story it doesn’t shy away from more serious subject matter –racism, unnoticed prejudices, micro-aggressions and the dangers of sexual assault, are all touched on as well as the cultural barriers Mae faces to being allowed to spread her wings and explore the bigger world beyond the Amir households.

It’s a lovely, funny, satisfying story with loveable, fully realised characters and genuine relatable family drama. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

⭐⭐⭐⭐

She by HC Warner

20200119_131934 (1)Ben and Bella appear to be the perfect couple. Ben is nursing a broken heart after getting out of a long term relationship, and then flirty, sexy Bella pops up in his life and things just seem to click. At least on paper. In reality the red flags start to pop up and Ben finds his life spiralling and his family being torn apart. But it’s just a coincidence. Right?

There are elements of She by HC Warner which really merit a gripping thriller. The complexities of domestic violence committed against men and the hard time people around them have accepting it for instance warranted a more in depth look at the patriarchal constructs that prevent men accessing support and the terror that can arise from unexpected places. But honestly that’s trying to wring something out of what is essentially a competent but ultimately fairly boring thriller.

She is a colour by numbers tale drowning under adjectives and misogynistic clichés. Women are continually compared and pitted against each other. Bella’s psychosis is not really depicted as anything other than over the top vengeance, and despite nearly two thirds of the book being written from a woman’s point of view, the female characters never felt like anything more than 2 dimensional characters fighting over some men. One of whom really wasn’t worth fighting over.

The story is broken into three parts, the first told from Ben’s point of view, and the second a repeat from Bella’s point of view, the third is told from a more omniprescent point of view but at least goes beyond the plot points of the first two chapters. While the shifting viewpoints provides some interest, you’ll likely spot the bulk of the twist coming by the end of the first section and from that point it does get very repetitive, and increasingly desperate to try and throw some sort of scandal in, to the point that it jumps the shark somewhat.

A decent read, but not one I’d rush to recommend.

Who needs friends when you can have followers? – Book Review

The shiny brightly coloured cover of Followers  by Megan Angelo hides beneath it a dark tale of corruption and the skewing of reality in a neat representation of the social and moral questions the book asks with regard to Social Media.

20191214_101557
Reading Followers next to the River Ness in Inverness, Scotland

Followers juxtaposes two different timelines: one in 2015 where two young ambitious women, Orla and Floss, find common ground in the creation of a social media personality and become intoxicated with the power and notoriety it brings; the second is much further in the future, in 2051 after a mysterious world-changing event known as the Spill. Marlow has grown up in the public eye, in the media city of Constellation; a place reminiscent of the Truman Show but with full awareness by the participants. Here volunteers have stepped up to be watched and commented on by the American public in a fully pervasive government run form of reality TV. The media world has broken into extremes since the events of the Spill – professional content makers and those that avoid it completely. The general public no longer trusts the internet and is generally much more tech averse causing a desperate Government to go to extremes to encourage them to make use of the state run services.

Marlow entered Constellation as a child with her parents and has only faint memories of life before. But a new “story line” she is presented by her network starts her asking questions about what constitutes her life, what she wants from it and what the past, that her mother has worked so hard to run from, is, setting her on a quest to find answers.

Harper Collins is describing Followers as 1984 for the Instagram generation. It’s not a bad analogy, though like the social media followers its’ heroines have to navigate, it remains to be seen if Followers will stick around long enough to warrant the comparison.

What seems a more fitting comparison is an episode of Black Mirror; very well written, unsettling and horrifying; a stark demonstration of the dystopian paths we risk with our reliance on different forms of technology and obsessions with social media.

It’s a complex plot which is neatly laid out so that you know there is a link between the two timelines, but you’re never entirely sure of what that link is until the book wants you to know.

None of the characters should be likeable. Floss is narcissistic, manipulative and shallow; Orla is at times insipid, always desperate and fairly selfish and Marlow, as a result of her upbringing, struggles to demonstrate any sense of agency or opinion. They have all done bad things, from the carelessly uncaring to the downright unforgiveable, and yet these women are compelling in their flaws and complexity. We all know hundreds of people like Floss and Orla (although the combination of the two women is clearly toxic), we may even have acted like them from time to time, and so even in the depths of their mistakes they are identifiable. Marlow is less recognisable as her storyline is a warning of possible consequences – but one which many children growing up now may face (albeit in a milder form) as they encounter their parents’ social media presence.

It’s an engaging and thought –provoking read but also highly entertaining.

Followers by Megan Angelou is released today: 9 February 2020