Wednesday, 23 September 2020

One Man's Opinion: DEATH OF A DIVA by DEREK FARRELL

 


In Death Of A Diva, published by Fahrenheit Press, Danny Bird has big plans and they all rest on the launch of his new pub where Lyra Day is set to kick off an evening of high camp with renditions of her long-distant greatest hits. Lyra hasn't read the script and choses the moment to leave with maximum impact, only her departure is not of her choosing. She's found poisoned by a pill even more bitter than she is and there don't seem to be many possible suspects to pin it on, Danny being right at the front of that queue. 

And so begins Danny's quest to solve the case. 

On his journey he meets a cast of grimly entertaining folk, each of whom has a story to tell. There's also a rather handsome policeman who Danny gets on with rather well and may well be the antidote to a heart that was broken by his former lover and the window cleaner. 

While there's a crime at the centre of the plot, it's not always centre stage. The murder is a vehicle that allows us to journey through a series of meetings and experiences in a way that made me laugh as much as anything else. The dialogue and description are packed with humour ranging from the pun to the straight gag to the innuendo. In many ways, the Britishness is reminiscent of the excellent Paul D Brazill and I reckon these two would make an ominous pairing should they ever choose to collaborate.

Very enjoyable and pleasingly light (in a dark kind of way). 







Friday, 28 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: FACELESS KILLERS by HENNING MANKELL



An old farmer living in isolation in the Swedish countrys
ide wakes up in the middle of the night to a familiar set of aches and pains. What's unfamiliar is that there's no noise from the horse in the neighbour's stable. The lights are on in the house next door and one of the windows appears to be smashed. He contacts the police and Inspector Kurt Wallender responds to find an unsettling bloodbath at the scene. 

The neighbour lies butchered on the floor and next to him, his wife lies with noose tied in an unusual fashion around her neck and is fast approaching her own death. She's rushed to hospital where her final word, recorded by the officer watching over her, is 'foreigner'. When this is leaked to the press, not only does it bring disquiet to the team of officers in whom trust has been compromised, but it stirs up the narrow minds of right wing agitators who are already at odds with Sweden's immigration system. 

When another murder takes place, Wallender is forced to prioritise. This case is where all the energy lies and provides a strong contrast to the cerebral slow-burn of the rural affair. 
The stories that follow come together well as the plots unfold, the key elements binding slowly to create a nicely-paced whole. 

There's a fine cast of characters with relationships that exist in a fragile balance. We have an old detective who is meticulous and dying, a woman on the switchboard who will to the extra-mile if treated right and who knows all the station's gossip, Wallender's father who has painted a version of the same image throughout his life and whose mind is rapidly crumbling and a prosecutor who is firm, strong and prepared to cut corners if it serves a case, but will not bend an inch if justice is in jeopardy. Throw in an ex-wife and a compelling daughter even though we barely get to know her and you have a terrific ensemble. 

The key player is, of course, Wallender himself. He's a satisfying mix of traits: a cerebral cop who can play the action hero when required; a liberal who's an old-school conservative deep down; a damaged human being who is frequently a bit of an arse. One particular incident involving the attempted seduction of the young prosecutor shows not only his flaws but his frailty. In spite of several unpleasant characteristics, the veneer of charm is just thick enough to cover the cracks and keep a reader like me on board. 


Bar a few irritations with the self-questioning and over-analysis in the detective's mind, this is a strong novel. Essentially, Faceless Killers (US) a dark canvas where clever use of flashes of light allow contradictions to live together successfully on the page. Unlike with the British television series, I'll definitely be back for more.

Monday, 24 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: THE ANCESTOR by LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG

 

I was lucky enough to work on the edits for The Ancestor (US). It was a real privilege. Here's the blurb:

A man wakes up in present-day Alaskan wilderness with no idea who he is, nothing on him save an empty journal with the date 1898 and a mirror. He sees another man hunting nearby, astounded that they look exactly alike except for his own beard. After following this other man home, he witnesses a wife and child that brings forth a rush of memories of his own wife and child, except he's certain they do not exist in modern times--but from his life in the late 1800s.

After recalling his name is Wyatt, he worms his way into his doppelganger Travis Barlow's life. Memories become unearthed the more time he spends, making him believe that he'd been frozen after coming to Alaska during the Gold Rush and that Travis is his great-great grandson. Wyatt is certain gold still exists in the area and finding it with Travis will ingratiate himself to the family, especially with Travis's wife Callie, once Wyatt falls in love. This turns into a dangerous obsession affecting the Barlows and everyone in their small town, since Wyatt can't be tamed until he also discovers the meaning of why he was able to be preserved on ice for over a century.

A meditation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams, The Ancestor is a thrilling page-turner in present day Alaska and a historical adventure about the perilous Gold Rush expeditions where prospectors left behind their lives for the promise of hope and a better future.

The question remains whether it was all worth the sacrifice...

My own thought is that this book has an amazing range. It blurs genres and weaves a number of strands together to form a beautiful and brilliant whole. It's a fusion of excellent story telling and great writing and it has the span of an epic. To my mind, this is a novel that will stand the test of time if given the chance. Highly recommended and I'm tipping this to be in many a top-ten list at the end of the year. 

Do yourself a favour and dive in. 


Saturday, 22 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: HOW TO KILL FRIENDS AND IMPLICATE PEOPLE by JAY STRINGER


"He didn't like Glasgow. He didn't like the people, and they didn't like him. He didn't understand the football, or the accents. He didn't like the drivers. They only had two speeds: road rage and stop. And he didn't like the rain. It rained for 360 days a year. On the other five? Baking sunshine. Every skinny ned in town takes his top off and worships the strange ball of fire in the sky."

Blurb:

Fergus Fletcher is a hit man. For five thousand pounds, he’ll kill anyone you want. For seven, he’ll frame someone else. Pretending to kill someone is a first, but Alex Pennan has stolen from the mob and needs to fake his own death.

Fergus is looking for love. So is Sam Ireland, a private investigator and part-time bike messenger. But she’s got her hands on a very important package and is in a world of trouble with the mob. Joe Pepper, pillar of society and corrupt gangland fixer, will stop at nothing—nothing at all—to intercept the package and protect his reputation.

Can Alex stay dead while his widow dances on his grave? Can Joe save himself before his stomach ulcer explodes? Can Fergus and Sam make it to a second date before Joe hires him to kill her?

Welcome to Glasgow. It’s a love story.


I don't often put in the blurb for a book, but in this case it felt right. There's so much in terms of plot development and intricate twist that I felt I might blow the whole thing by trying to offer an outline.


It's been a few years since I read the first of the Sam Ireland books, Ways To Die In Glasgow. It was such a great book that I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to the second. Perhaps it speaks more of my general lack of organisation skills and my the chaos of my reading patterns than anything else. Whatever the reason, I finally made it and I'm so very glad I did.


Though I didn't imagine it would be possible, I think that this book outdoes the previous one. It has the same levels of high drama, similar bursts of action and energy and the ever-present shots of humour, but getting the chance to hang around with Sam Ireland again means we know her just that little bit more. It's hard not to love her drive and determination and it's impossible not to want the best for her. When she meets Fergus, a hitman who is losing any sense of job satisfaction, we know they go together like Hepburn and Tracy while understanding that there's a fair chance their growing feelings will be the end of both of them. Throw in a bunch of criminals who are as interesting a bunch of lawbreakers as you're likely to find and put it against the backdrop of a city that has a heart that beats constantly throughout and you have something very special to entertain you. 


The chemistry between the hitman (who has to rank up there with any other) and the private investigator (also right up there) is so strong that it begs a revisit at some point in the future. They're a great combination and another appearance would be impossible to resist. The only issue might be keeping it real. In How To Kill Friends (US), even though each strand is extreme and unusual, it always comes across as entirely plausible and down to earth. It feels as if this kind of thing could be happening in a city nearby right now. I guess that's a mark of a master story teller.


Jay makes no secret of the fact that he's dyslexic and I admire him for the way he talks with passion about it. Supporting pupils dyslexia is part of what I do. The identification often makes a child feel better about themselves when they come to understand why aspects of learning are so difficult. It always helps when we point to dyslexics who have achieved success in their fields and done wonderful things in the past. From now on, I'm going to add Jay Stringer to that list. I'll tell them that one of the finest crime writers in the UK is Scottish and that when they get older they might enjoy the books, on audio if necessary. I think they'd get a kick out of that. 


Gripping read. Hugely entertaining. Highly recommended.  


I'm not sure what the usual price is, but I think it's on offer just now at around the £1/$1 mark, so what are you waiting for?






Friday, 21 August 2020

THE DEADLIEST THIEF by JUNE TROP

The Roman Empire may be the least of her enemies. 

Miriam bat Isaac, an alchemist and amateur sleuth in first-century CE Alexandria, becomes frantic when her best friend, Phoebe, is kidnapped. At the same time, a brute of a man is stalking Nathaniel ben Ruben, Miriam’s occasional deputy, an itinerant potbellied dwarf. This brute of a man is none other than Pytheus, the last surviving jewel thief from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. His wife has agreed to tell you about him on condition that you promise to keep her story confidential:

 

It’s not safe to give you my name; just know me as the wife of Pytheus. My husband was one of the three men who, during the spring of the seventh year of the Reign of Nero, broke into the Temple of Artemis, made off with a king’s ransom in gems, and escaped on the Thalia to Alexandria.

 

I grew up in Roman-occupied Alexandria in a tenement near the waterfront of the Great Harbor, but my parents were from Tarsus. After my father was injured loading sacks of grain onto a ship bound for Rome, he brought my mother and me back to Tarsus so we could stay with his brother. There I lived until I married Pytheus, whereupon my husband and I moved to the commercial district of Ephesus so he would have a chance to get work in the warehouses lining the quays there.

 

But it’s the day of the Festival of Artemis that I want to tell you about, when the statue of the goddess is carried with great solemnity through the city. Tourists and Ephesians alike take their place either in the procession or along the way until it’s time to follow the priests to the Temple for the sacrifice.

 

Pytheus and I got separated in the crush as the priests were carrying the sacred statue through the city. Wrapped in the clamor of the festival and driven by the throng, I could not, despite my efforts, find him. Once I thought I saw him, but a moment later he disappeared in a plume of dust. So, I assumed I’d meet up with him at the Temple or, if not there, then at home.

 

But of course, I never did.

 

It didn’t take me long to realize he must have been involved in the jewel heist and fled on the ship that left so suddenly for Alexandria. Pytheus was by nature suspicious and secretive, and all he ever dreamed of was having easy money. Instead his life consisted of one intrigue after another and then running from the consequences. Sometimes he’d come home with unexplained cash, but that only honed his greed and fueled even more bitterness for the possessions others acquired. So, I knew what must have happened when he didn’t come home.

 

Fearing my landlord would sic the slavers on me to recover the unpaid rent, I took what little I had and booked passage straight away on the next ship to Alexandria. Setting out to find him, I asked for him first among the sailors, roustabouts, and deckhands and then at the various inns, cook-shops, and saloons. At first, he seemed happy to see me. He told me we were rich, that he’d come by a one-third share of the loot from the Temple of Artemis, which he’d fence when the time was right, and in the meantime, we’d live modestly.

 

Later, he told me about his accomplices in the heist: the captain of the Thalia and another scoundrel who was posing as a scholar of Greek culture to court the daughter of a rabbi. Little did I know my husband’s next scheme would be to seize their shares as well. I cannot explain his devilish plan here, but you will draw in a quick breath when The Deadliest Thief (US) takes you into the underbelly of first-century CE Roman-occupied Alexandria.


A KIRKUS REVIEW of THE DEADLIEST THIEF

“The multifaceted mystery is intriguing, with engaging characters… but the real strength of Trop’s atmospherically rich book lies in her ability to transport her audience to a distant time and place… Vibrant imagery and an entertaining plot ending with a most unexpected twist.” — Kirkus Reviews

About the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series

The core characters’ lives advance with each book, but each story stands alone. So, begin with any one of the five in the series and accompany Miriam through the rancid underbelly of Alexandria, the city second only to Rome. You can purchase the books in e-book or paperback on the usual platforms, or at www.JuneTrop.com. And don’t forget to read my weekly blog on my website or Facebook page.



Monday, 17 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by RICHARD OSMAN


What a treat this book is. It's a quaint murder mystery set in a retirement village where a group of residents have set themselves up as the Thursday Murder Club of the title. They mull over old cases, but find themselves in the midst of an investigation when the business partner of the complex owner is bludgeoned to death. At the scene of a crime, a photo is left which includes the son of one of the group members and they can't resist getting involved. 

The police are also keen to solve the crime. With some stealthy manipulation by the Murder Club's leader, the constable who delivers security lectures as part of the retirement village's entertainment programme is asked to join the refreshingly straightforward detective who leads the team. 

Plots thicken when a further crime is committed during a protest aimed at saving a convent's cemetery from the expansion of the village and later when a range of skeletons are discovered in various closets (and other places). 

What starts off as an interesting-enough tale soon becomes a compelling mystery rooted in strong traditions. Initial flavours suggesting a cocktail of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse soon fade as the realisation hits that Richard Osman has a talent and a style of his very own. 

There's a wonderful life-affirming attitude throughout. We are reminded that all people are amazing individuals with unique histories. For that, they are to be respected and all but the most serious of indiscretions can be allowed to fade without close inspection. 

Every character in the cast is delightfully constructed and the interplay between them is a joy to behold. Moments of genuine emotion are created by excellent storytelling, keen observation, neat turns of phrase and a range of comedy moments that inspires everything from a warm smile to laughs out loud. Just as importantly, the solving of the crimes unfolds with perfect timing and there are a few twists at the end to allow it to end with a flourish. 

Once the glow of finishing the novel eventually faded, I found myself hoping that the delights of the read wouldn't be diluted by turning it into a series. Not long after that, I decided I was probably right about that, but that a sequel would be entirely in order (if you please Mr Osman). 

And a final thought. Like a Pixar film where you really should stick around until the end of the credits, you should actually read the acknowledgements at the back. Not only are they entertaining, they include tips for eating out and a warmth of spirit that reflects the loveliness of the novel itself. 

Sunday, 16 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: SLOW DOWN by LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG


"God, Noah, stop reading too much into everything. I do Fast all the time, and look at me, I'm fine. The world is made up of strong people and weak ones, and if some of those weak people have to go to make more room for the strong, then so be it."


Not long not until Lee Matthew Goldberg's The Ancestor (US) is released. It's a real tour de force and I wholeheartedly recommend that you get yourself a copy and indulge yourself, not matter what your usual genre choice. I thought I'd warm up for the big day by reading Slow Down to get a sense of the author's earlier work. 

Slow Down (US) uses the familiar noir structure of being told in retrospect by the protagonist, in this case one Noah Spaeth. He's struggling to meet a deadline to produce a biography that will form the basis of a book and a film. At the last minute, a ghost writer turns up to rescue him from his inability to settle to work and from that point we step into his past, beginning with the path that introduced him to film director Dominic Bambach. It turns out that the love of Spaeth's life is currently Bambach's mistress and he's soon seduced by the director's desire to find a fresh writer untainted by the industry. As Spaeth sets out to become the next big thing, he finds huge piles of bizarre at every turn.

There's a new drug on the scene. Something called Fast. Not only has it taken off among New York's cool set, it's allowed it's creator, a certain maverick film director, to capture the lives of a number of would-be stars via a yellow sun tattooed containing heavy doses of the drug onto their backs. Though the actors are happy to prostitute themselves to find their big break, it's Spaeth who is prepared to sell his soul. His goal is to become known by everyone. To have his name at the tip of the world's lips. The success might fill the hole left by his absentee parents, to mend his broken heart or to bring energy to the stale and sterile life of his rich family who have nothing to do other than to seek fun. 

In order to achieve his goals, Spaeth feels he has to outdo his mentor. This means he has to shed all inhibitions and must be prepared to steal, exploit, cheat, manipulate and indulge in the cold and extreme ways. Empathy, compassion and concern are all binned. Real life and fiction blur and overlap. Identity becomes fluid and interchangeable. The web of interplay becomes dangerous as Spaeth attempts to work out the motivations of all the other ruthless bastards around him to fathom which side will come out on top. Eventually he chooses the most dangerous of them all as a superbly crafted femme fatale lays out a path before him and paves it with the promise of gold. 

There's a lot going on in this novel. Fact fuels fiction and vice versa. Tension and drama come from all angles, whether it be from Spaeth's relationships, extreme movie-making techniques or the sticky web into which he is lured. As the plot thickened, my favourite setting throughout came in the form of Spaeth's domestic life where he interacts with his brother, sister and maid. This provides a great contrast to the action and as a counterpoint illustrates from what a great height he has fallen. 

Writing about the avant-garde cinema and its creators contains the inherent danger that the fictitious pretensions may taint a story, but Lee Matthew Goldberg manages to avoid such potential pitfalls with some skill while still managing to point out the shallow and hollow desperations of those striving for success for its own sake. 

Slow Down is a tense and thought-provoking read and it's one that's well worth getting hold of. If, however, you're pennies are few and you need something to satisfy whatever reading needs you have right now, I'll point you in the direction of The Ancestor instead. Both books are original, well-written and compelling, it's just that the upcoming release reaches deeper and further and has a set of characters that inspire a wider range of emotional response. Ideally, of course, you should treat yourself to a copy of both. In that way you'll be royally entertained and supporting both the author and one of the best independent publishers around.