Friday, 10 October 2014


In marked contrast to the book reviewed today, I’d like to highlight my own How To Choose A Sweetheart because it’s currently on offer. It’s light entertainment if you need a little romantic escapism and a few laughs. You’ll find it for 77p in the UK and $1.23 in the US for the next few days.

The Monster’s Wife is a different kettle of frogs altogether.

Kate Horsley is clearly a brave lady. She’s taken on a master work and written a sequel. In doing so, she’s produced a novel of class and beauty that’s worthy of its recent nomination as Scottish Book Of The Year in the Saltire Literary Awards.

Imagine, if you will, a small Scottish island at around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. It has a tiny population who are bound to the land and the sea for everything. Along comes the strange visitor from Europe and everything starts to change.

“Who’d have thought in our modern day, to see the plagues of Egypt washed up onto our shores?”

Who indeed?

Nature seems restless. Strange things have been washed up on the beach. Dolphins lay dead and smiling on the rocks. Livestock around the island is found ripped apart. Napoleon’s ships are moored nearby. It seems that God is angry and the people of Hoy gather in the church to pray and to swap tales.

It’s not long before folk turn their attention to the mysterious Victor Frankenstein, who is living and working up at the big house, and to May and Oona who are working there for him.

Oona is our guide and she’s a fabulously complex character. She has a rare strength and determination about her and yet has a physical frailty that softens and yet heightens these traits. She shows a tremendous loyalty to her best friend, May, who is about to leave her to marry a twin from the village. It’s this loyalty to May that initially draws Oona in to the life of Frankenstein. It’s a mysterious world that she enters and the complex layers are peeled slowly and tantalisingly away as we get to discover this new world through Oona’s eyes.

The world of the big house is a stark contrast to the superstitious, God-fearing community who talk of the bible, the selkies and the Finman. It’s a practical, scientific place full of caged birds, home-made contraptions and experiments aimed at discovering something of the nature of death and exploring the possibilities of resurrection.
It’s a stroke of genius to tell the story from Oona’s perspective. It works to the book’s advantage at every turn.

What is so stunning about the book for me is the use of language. The work flows from one gem of a sentence to another. The dialogue captures something of a sense of period, is clean and never stilted in the way that some attempts at historical fiction can be. The shadows and sense of darkness are embedded into the work with great subtlety and the images are often so perfectly honed that they really can take the breath away.

The characters, and I’ll include the island of Hoy here, are wonderful. Their differences are exploited superbly when things start to go wrong and the status quo cracks like dry bones.
On top of all that, the novel is incredibly gripping. The tension builds and the sense of the sinister grows in the way of any great page-turner.

I found The Monster’s Wife to be a terrific read. It’s a stunning work and I hope you’ll take the time to check it out.

If you happen to be in a book group, I’d suggest you make this your next recommendation. You’ll get so many hours of discussion and so many pats on the back from the other members for the idea that you really won’t regret it.

 A classic in the making.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Doubleback is a soft-boiled detective novel that mixes gentle encounters with urgent action scenes to provide a well-rounded story.

Georgia Davis is sucked into a kidnapping case involving a young girl and overcomes her reluctance to investigate when a number of fatal accidents have more than a whiff of the sinister about them. As she probes, she collects the pieces of the puzzle she is looking to solve, each of them being bigger than the one before. She covers a whole range of dark goings on including those in the world of computers, banking, pirate security forces, drugs and immigration. That’s a lot of territory, but each step makes sense and the complexities of the issues are well-explained where necessary.

It’s a pleasing read with a satisfying ending and Georgia and her supporting cast were a pleasure to get to know. 

Friday, 3 October 2014


“The more you walk this road, the longer the road seems to be.”

I’m not entirely sure how George Pelecanos does it. Drama City is yet another example of the man’s brilliance. He tells a huge number of stories all at once by weaving together the lives of the main players with those of the supporting cast and still manages to drive forward a central theme that never lets on about where it’s going until things reach their climax.

Lorenzo Brown is a dog man. It’s where he’s ended up after a spell in prison for working drugs with his friend Nigel. Lorenzo has locked the demons of his past away and he’s determined to stay clean and live a straightforward life. As a dog man, he trawls through the city’s difficult spots and encounters a cast of unsavoury situations. In contrast to the animals he works with, his own dog is well-cared for. In this brief description of his pet, Pelecanos manages to hint at the violence of the environment and let us know about the dog all in a oner:

“Jasmine’s coat was cream coloured, with tan and brown shotgunned across the fur.”
Lorenzo has a probation officer, Rachel Lopez, and she (like me) is rooting for him all the way.
Lopez invests a good deal into each of the offenders she works with, believing in the possible. Unfortunately, she’s fighting demons of her own. Like Lorenzo, her job leads her into many difficult and dangerous places and her ways of coping are easily understandable.

For me, the power of Drama City lies in the strength of the characters. From an early stage I felt a strong desire to see them come through their own personal battles unscathed. Once that desire had been established, Pelacanos began to play with the inhabitants of the book like a mischievous god, throwing them to the lions piece by piece and forcing me to watch as the situations played out.

Pelecanos also manages to summarise the profound using very simple brushstrokes and is able to impart huge amounts of information through the tiniest of things (take, for example, the provenance of a matchbook).

Drama City is a hugely satisfying read. The only way I could recommend it more highly would be to stand on something very tall. Be warned, it’s not for those of a nervous disposition. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


"Do the unexpected.”

At the opening of Incident On And Off A Mountain Road, a car is driving too fast around a bend and takes out an old Buick. Ellen stops to check for survivors. She finds blood on the seat and then is attacked by a deranged character wielding a knife.

What follows is a chase that sees Ellen doing her best to get away. 
Thankfully, she’s been hooked up with a trainer in survival techniques and his voice pops into her head every-so-often to help her stay clear of the lunatic with the blade.

As Ellen wanders further into unknown territory, she discovers that her attacker is even more loopy than she could ever have imagined. 
The tension builds fairly well for a short piece and the horror elements work nicely.

It’s not my favourite Lansdale by a long shot, but it’s an interesting enough read. It also happens to include one of the most horrific weapons I’ve come across and a nice twist at the end to tie things all together. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014


If you are of a certain age, you might well remember the head-to-head comedy conversations between Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith or the two Ronnies. They’d talk earnestly about something, dive off in tangents, bewilder each other and provide the watcher with a huge amount of entertainment in the process.

There’s something about the central characters in The Burglar Diaries (Bez and Ollie) that reminded me of those comedy encounters. Maybe it’s the quality of the writing and the brilliance of the humour that I felt they had in common.

Bez and Ollie are a team. We get to follow them through a series of crimes that are never short of interesting events in themselves. It’s a collection of musings and action that come together as a well-knitted collection of short stories yet also have something of the driving narrative of a novel. There a thoughts on the criminal code, the planning of a burglary, fencing stolen goods, holding down relationships when you’re a crook, famous rip-offs, popular culture and shades of philosophy.

This was a genuine laugh-out-loud book for me and those laughs were spread all the way through the work. 

There’s great observational and situational humour here and I’d urge you to try it for yourself.

Smashing stuff. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014


In The Blue Sweetheart, Clayton, an ex-boxer with the scars to prove it, is hiding out in a bar run by the only man in Ceylon who can keep him safe. If Clayton can follow Kroner’s instructions and trust their friendship, all could turn out very well indeed.
A visit from Alma changes everything. She’s Clayton’s ex and is offering to buy an enormous sapphire on behalf of her boyfriend and the man who owns the local mines, Rudy Hagen. Old wounds are opened and Clayton just can’t resist picking at these old sores. He leaves his safe haven to look for revenge of some kind.
This read is short, hot and sweaty. The femme fatale is unpredictable and manipulative as she should be. There’s lots of action and the setting is exotic. It’s a light read and has many likeable facets. Some of the prose is wonderfully hard-boiled. To my mind the plot’s a little thin and overblown and it feels like the author's going through the motions; if it were a novel I think I’d have lost patience. That said, it’s certainly worth checking out if you’re looking for something to fill a gap and don't fancy anything too heavy.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

First things first.

I’m posting this a few days before the book’s release because if you like the sound of it you’ll still be able to pick up a cheap copy. It’ll be 85p or $1.32 (including tax) if you pick one up before Thursday when Undercover will be released to the world.

Mr Brennan was kind enough to send me a copy when he saw that I’d pre-ordered. Thanks, sir.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team. There’s an ‘M’ and an ‘E’ though. In fact, it’s an anagram of ‘ta me’ as in who you should pass it to if you want to win.” Rory Cullen, CULLEN: The Autobiography

Undercover opens with an uncomfortable scene in a hostage situation. Cormac Kelly is in the unenviable position of being an undercover police officer who has infiltrated the gang who have kidnapped a father and his teenage son. It stretches Kelly’s humanity to watch the treatment of the victims at the hands of the bunch of thugs he has to work for and it’s clearly not going to end well for someone. It might be easier for him to cope if the young boy who has been taken could just accept the situation, but his reactions are spirited and strong and happen to put him in a more precarious position than he needs to be.

The mother (Lydia Gallagher) of the kidnapped pair is a feisty lady who doesn’t find it easy to keep her mouth shut when faced with connections of the men responsible. She also happens to be the agent of Rory Cullen, the new signing of Manchester City Football Club. Cullen’s a course, vain man who happens to be a great striker. He’s on tour trying to sell his autobiography. With his Northern Irish nationality it’s easy for the press to make comparisons between Cullen and George Best. Cullen doesn’t make too many of those comparisons himself – he basically feels he’s better than Best (if grammar will allow that to be).

When Cormac Kelly can take no more of the hostage situation, he takes radical steps. This leads him to be on the hit-list of the mob and also as a target for the police, who believe he has gone rogue.

What follows is a thrilling ride through the streets of Belfast and London. It’s fast paced and exciting and the twists and turns of the plot are cleverly handled by the author. One can never be quite sure where Kelly is going next and the way the cleverness and experience of the man contrast with his reckless nature constantly add drama to the story. If that weren’t enough, a mercenary security expert, bent coppers and remnants of the IRA really ratchet up the tension.

Not only is this a tense read, it also has some of Brennan’s trademarks in there to ensure that it is not simply any old police thriller. This is layered with humour, dark as well as witty, and there’s a great quality to the observation of people and place throughout.

Each chapter opens with a wonderful quote from the Cullen autobiography. These snippets are so well-written that if the autobiography were ever to be published, I’d be the first in the queue to get mine.

This one’s a fabulous read and is a very worthy addition to the already bejewelled Blasted Heath list. Super stuff.