Sunday, 18 November 2018

Initiated to Kill by Sharlene Almond




Initiated to Kill by Sharlene Almond is a thriller steeped in layer upon layer of conspiracies. It deals with the sinister power of the Freemasons and takes the reader on a journey through the ages.

The premise of the novel is that the Freemasons have cast a long shadow over history and still have a great deal of influence over current events. The tentacles of this sinister organisation reach into all major institutions making their position untouchable. Almond cleverly links the story of Jack the Ripper with present day crimes as they all fall under the activities of the Freemasons, whose prime goal is to cause as much chaos as possible in order to assert control in the ensuing vacuum.

Almond’s novel takes the reader to a range of settings from London, Russia and Seville. The contemporary sections of the novel are based in Seville and this is where Almond demonstrates her skill as she vividly depicts the Spanish city in all its glory. The description is very visual and it’s no coincidence that art is a thread running through the novel as the leading character is an art historian and Jack the Ripper is presented as a painter.

There are lots of characters in the story as Jack the Ripper’s story and the contemporary one run side by side. In the contemporary strand the protagonist is Annabella Cordova, a young Art History student at the Seville University. She has endured a difficult past, which is revealed to us in flashback, and her current life is thrown into turmoil when her friend disappears. As more and more girls begin to disappear Annabella’s path crosses with Detectives Valero and Rivero.

Essentially, the modern hunt for the missing girls mirrors the Victorian hunt for Jack the Ripper. The Ripper taunted the police with letters and the modern murderer does the same by sending human hearts to the investigators. Almond creates much tension in her novel and the reader is kept guessing right until the very end as the influence of the Freemasons means it’s never certain who is actually involved in the crimes.

Initiated to Kill is a novel with a lot to offer but the exciting plot is undermined by the constant switching of timelines and viewpoints. The main time frames for the story are London 1888 and 1996 and Seville 2010 but it also switches briefly to other times in order to contextualise some of the back stories. In the end there is simply too much going back and forth and it has a detrimental effect on the flow. The switching from 3rd person to 1st person also doesn’t help as it’s not always clear whose story we are following. In my opinion this is a novel that might have been better as two distinct novels; Jack the Ripper’s story and Annabella’s story.

I really liked the way Almond tried to depict Jack the Ripper as a rounded character. The flashbacks to his childhood and his early psychopathic behaviour made him interesting. However, any real characterisation is lost in the density of the novel and the sheer number of characters in it. I found myself having to jot down names just to keep up with them and the body count is so high it’s hard to feel invested in anybody.

I love a conspiracy theory and I think Almond has a great idea in fictionalising the Freemason’s history and potential legacy. I found myself completely believing the story that Almond creates. However, there are times when she writes at such length about the historical origins and background of the brotherhood that it pulls the reader out of the story and starts to feel like an essay. There is no doubt that Almond has done a lot of research for her book but in places a lighter touch would have been beneficial.

All in all, Initiated to Kill kept me intrigued and guessing until the end. If you enjoy a thriller with a conspiracy twist then give this one a try.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Procurement of Souls by Benjamin Hope




The Procurement of Souls by Benjamin Hope is a steampunk novel set in Victorian England. It is essentially a battle between the positive and negative forces of science.

I have to confess this is a genre that I haven’t read before and consequently it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the story. Basically it suspends any notion of reality as an evil scientist is able to remove the souls of humans and then control them like puppets. There is no grey area in this story and the villains really are villains.

The said mad scientist is a bitter and twisted individual named Thomas Weimer. Perhaps of more interest to me is his assistant, Marina, a tough, powerful, cigarillo smoking woman, who can physically get the better of most men. The dynamic between her and Weimer has the potential to create lots of tension as she is treated like a lackey by him and clearly resents his power. However, I felt that Hope missed an opportunity to create a really interesting character in Marina and in the end she remains a mystery with no real insight into who she is.

Weimer and Marina are offset by the renowned scientist, Magnus Drinkwater and his seventeen year old daughter, Clementine. It is Clementine who first involves herself in the disappearance of vulnerable young women, eventually forcing her reluctant father to help investigate the situation. Magnus has invented a machine called the viroscope that can potentially stop time but he is reluctant to use it due to the mysterious death of his wife whilst experimenting with the machine. The death of his wife in fact casts a shadow over the whole novel and plays a role in bringing the plot together.

The plot is very busy and there are lots of characters as Weimer takes up residence in a monastery and the army is called upon to try and thwart him. I love character driven novels and so personally felt a little bit cheated that we never really have time to get to know the characters. Perhaps the most rounded one is Novice Goode, a member of the monastery who is struggling with his calling but again because the novel is so plot driven and didn’t feel that I fully knew him.

I really liked how Hope uses his novel to pit science against religion. Weimer is clearly playing God by removing people’s souls and using them for his own ends and this is referred to several times. By setting the bulk of the novel in a monastery, Hope highlights the dichotomy between blind faith and reason. Novice Goode and Clementine plainly represent the heart of the novel and both of them are young and idealistic with compassion for others. The fact that the two of them survive maybe suggests that Hope wants to show the triumph of humanity.

Hope is a good writer and despite the fanciful nature of the story, it makes complete sense within the realms of the plot. The description of Victorian London and the crime-ridden docks is very effective and creates a good backdrop to the story. My own personal disappointment is that characterisation is lost in favour of the plot but maybe this is the nature of steampunk fiction.

If you are a fan of steampunk then I have no doubt that this will be one for you to enjoy. It’s exciting and well written and keeps you guessing until the very end.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Quick Fix by J. Gregory Smith



Quick Fix by J.Gregory Smith is a fast paced adventure set in Fishtown, a small town in Philadelphia. It’s an exciting yarn with an effective combination of humour, action and tension.

The story is told in 1st person narrative from the perspective of military contractor, Kyle Logan. Kyle has lived his whole life in Fishtown and most of the characters are known to him and played a part in his past which helps to make the plot and its denouement believable. The novel begins as Kyle is recovering from injuries he sustained whilst in Iraq, which have left him struggling both physically and mentally. On top of this he is trying to come to terms with his estranged wife’s new relationship with an antagonistic lawyer.

However, it is Kyle’s relationship with his childhood friend, Ryan ‘Anything for a Buck’ Buckley that leads to him becoming embroiled in a criminal endeavour that threatens to destroy not only him but everyone he cares about. Gregory Smith goes to great pains to show Ryan’s good qualities in that he helped Kyle’s mother when she was terminally ill and his own parents died in tragic circumstances but I found it difficult to warm to him. He is morally corrupt and untrustworthy but Kyle is easily led and seems incapable of seeing his friend as he really is.

The plot centres on the theft of some priceless Aztec statues which Ryan plans to sell to the local bad boy, Danny ‘Iceballs’ Sheehan who is a part of the Irish mob. Typically Ryan tries to double cross Sheehan and he and Kyle end up fighting for their lives as they in turn are double crossed and then robbed. It’s a complicated plot but to Gregory Smith’s credit he asserts full control over the narrative and engaged my interest throughout.

My favourite character is Kyle’s landlord, Rollie, a former marine and lonely widower, advancing in years but keen to get involved in the melee that develops when Sheehan kidnaps Kyle’s estranged wife, Beth. It is through Rollie’s memories of Sheehan’s father that we are shown how dangerous these men are and the violence and cruelty runs parallel to the warm camaraderie that Kyle and Rollie enjoy. There is no attempt to dress up the fact that these gangsters are vicious thugs with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The tone of the novel, however, is not overly dark due to the conversational style of narrative and the fact that Kyle is not particularly tough or adept at fighting and is basically just trying to keep his head above water. There is something of the everyman in Kyle as his life implodes and he finds himself with little control over the proceedings. Despite this is he loyal to both Ryan and Beth and comes across as a decent person.
The setting of the novel creates a claustrophobic feel which racks up the tension. The area seems familiar to the author as he describes the landscape and small town affiliations with a convincing ease. From the onset where Kyle has an altercation in a local bar, the novel has a filmic, visual quality which I found enjoyable.

I really like the way Gregory Smith chooses to end his novel in a realistic ambiguous way. It is not all tied up in a happy ending but rather people just accepting each other’s flaws and doing the best they can.

Quick Fix is an engaging, exciting novel. The characters are all believable and on the whole likeable and I felt very much invested in them. If you are looking for a bit of escapism and you like action and adventure then I think you would enjoy this one very much.



Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Dead on Leave by Chris Nickson




The Dead on Leave by Chris Nickson is a gripping crime novel set in 1930s Leeds. From the opening page I was engrossed in both the story and its historical backdrop.

The novel’s protagonist is the likeable Detective Sergeant Urban Raven who is tough and cynical but has an underlying insecurity that becomes most apparent in his relationship with his wife. Urban has facial scars from injuries sustained in WW1 and this defines how he sees himself and how others see him and treat him. He refers to his marriage as “beauty and the beast” and there is the sense that he feels he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

The story begins as supporters of Oswald Mosley prepare to stage a rally in Leeds which provokes a violent clash with Communist protesters. This proves to be a challenge for the police and is made worse when someone is murdered during the melee. Urban and his colleagues, unused to such serious crimes, struggle to solve the case which becomes even more problematic when there are two more murders which are somehow linked to the British Union of Fascists.

The crime element is engaging, especially as Urban proves to be a good, methodical investigator willing to do whatever it takes to solve the case. However, the novel has so much more than this to offer. Nickson’s knowledge of Leeds is evident in the way he expertly describes the drab landscape of a city still reeling from the Depression. Nickson uses the motif of vividly coloured advertisements posted around the city to highlight the bleak reality of a community where the majority of people are unemployed.

Nickson’s historical knowledge also brings something to the novel as men such as Urban are shaped by their wartime experiences. Almost every encounter he has with men of a similar age involve references to the war. At the same time the spectre of WW2 is looming in the background as Hitler is consolidating his power and his influence is spreading as a result of the widespread poverty and desperation. The media meanwhile are focusing their attention on the possible abdication of King Edward Vlll and his affair with Wallis Simpson.

Despite the fact that the novel is set in the 1930s it feels very relevant to modern Britain and I could relate to many of the issues it raises. The popularity of the British Union of Fascists as they play on the fears of people who are suffering the effects of austerity can clearly be likened to the emergence of groups like Britain First. The idea of ‘fake news’ is also not new as Nickson refers to it as “Bread and Circuses” where the media try and set the political agenda by focusing on stories designed to distract people from what’s really going on.

I really enjoyed Nickson’s exploration of Urban’s marriage to Marjorie who was his nurse when he returned from the war. Even though they have done better than most financially, escaping from the slums to new housing, their marriage is not plain sailing. Marjorie has suffered numerous miscarriages and the lack of children has created a void between them. Marjorie feels like she is disappearing and Urban avoids communication by focusing on work. The difficulties they face are believable and I’m sure lots of readers will relate to them.

All in all I enjoyed The Dead on Leave very much. It is well written with a lively plot that kept my interest throughout. If you enjoy a crime which is steeped in history then I suggest you give this one a try.


Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Shoal: A Thanet Writers Anthology



Shoal is an anthology of short stories written by the Thanet Writers’ Group and edited by Alice Olivia Scarlett. I’m not normally a reader of short stories but this anthology has left me wanting more.

I love the concept of ‘Shoal’ to convey the idea of lots of individual writers coming together to create a very comprehensive anthology. There are twenty-five stories and each one is very different to the rest. The only thing the stories have in common is the quality of the writing which makes each of them a joy to read. The diverse styles and themes mean that there is something for everyone and I’ve picked out a small sample to focus on.

A couple of the stories focus on the poignancy of old age and the passage of time. The Old Man by Ghillie communicates the sorrow of an old man in the final chapter of his life extremely effectively. The dichotomy of having an abundance of knowledge and wisdom whilst being dismissed as irrelevant in a world that no longer values experience. Lucy by Sarah Tait on the other hand chooses to explore old age through the eyes of a daughter forced to care for a dependent parent. Tait cleverly highlights the resentment caused by the change in dynamic between the mother and daughter.

I also enjoyed the stories which reflect on missed opportunities. In First and Last, 1917, Catherine Law’s protagonist is a woman trapped in an abusive marriage whose only joy comes from the past. A past that sadly remains elusive and out of reach. Similarly in All the Post Cards Never Sent by Rosie Ascott, we are reminded how fleeting our chances of happiness can be and why it’s so important to embrace them.

Some of the stories feel like they have the potential to be developed into novels should the writers have the inclination. Loose Ends by Sam Kaye had me on the edge of my seat as the writer built the tension in a mini-thriller. The story builds around the idea of ‘live by the sword die by the sword’ as the life of a sniper is shown to be very expendable. Likewise The Life and Times of a Zombie is an exciting post-apocalyptic novel that felt like it had more to give.

Some of the stories are very contemporary and rooted in realism, touching on subjects such as homelessness and bullying. Cuke by Luke Edley is a hilarious account of a hapless young man, addicted to porn and desperately trying to lose his virginity. Other stories, however, have a surreal, timeless quality to them. For example, Paint me contemplates the relationship between art and the viewer and sees the viewer sublimated into the artwork. Whilst Chisel by Rebecca Delphine is a story of immortal beings feeding from the “light” of young people.

Shoal is not an easy book to review purely because there are so many stories, all with something to offer the reader. I would recommend that if you enjoy short stories then you choose Shoal and peruse the vast array of genres and writing styles. I guarantee you’ll find lots to enjoy.

Monday, 7 May 2018

The Black Orchestra by JJ Toner



The Black Orchestra by JJ Toner is a historical thriller set during the period of the Third Reich. It is a thorough depiction of the terror and danger of that time.

The story is told in first person narrative  from the point of view of Kurt Muller, a twenty-something man living in Berlin and working for the Intelligence Service. His suspicions that a colleague has been murdered lead to him unearthing information that proves to be potentially deadly both for himself and the dead man’s family.

At the centre of the mystery is Kurt’s uncle, a leading figure in the SS. Kurt’s relationship with his uncle is a double edged sword as it provides him with some protection and is the reason for his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Intelligence Service. However, his uncle’s shadowy presence also has ramifications for Kurt’s past and future as he begins asking questions about his father’s death and embarks upon a relationship with the mysterious Gudrun.

This novel is a must read for history buffs and there is no doubt that Toner has an incredible knowledge of this period. One of the book’s strengths is the way it contextualises events that we have all heard of such as the Night of the Long Knives and Turing’s work at Bletchley deciphering Enigma. At times though it feels as if Toner is listing all of the historical events at the expense of the pace of the novel. I suspect when you have such an impressive bank of research it’s tempting to want to include everything but I think in this case the factual information gets in the way of the tension.

My favourite parts of the novel are the ones when we are shown the human cost of the Nazi regime. The Jewish shops that Kurt had frequented before Hitler’s rise to power were now burned out with the words “Achtung Juden” painted on them. Vigilantism is encouraged by the state and there is a scene where a man is singled out and grabbed by a mob that proceeds to hang him which is especially haunting. The terror of constantly looking over your shoulder and being afraid of not being seen as a “good German” permeates the novel very effectively.

Some of the characters are used very skilfully by Toner to show the horrors of the Nazi ideology, for example Kurt’s friend, Alex, has a brother with learning difficulties who falls foul of the Eugenics Court. Friends turn on each other as the slightest rumour can lead to the Gestapo torturing you and ultimately sending you to a labour camp. Kurt himself becomes the subject of Gestapo interrogations on a couple of occasions. The impact this had on people’s mental health is conveyed successfully via both Kurt and Alex. Toner introducers so many characters into his story however that it is really difficult to keep track of who is who without constantly going back to check which gets in the way of the flow of the story.

Most of the novel is set in Germany but half way through the action switches to Ireland where Kurt’s mother lives and spies have been despatched in order to encourage the IRA to help the Nazis. There are plans for an IRA bombing campaign which would distract England from the war effort. This was an interesting diversion as I had no idea that the IRA and the Nazis worked together. It is through a visit to Ireland that Kurt learns the truth about his father and becomes involved in an anti-Nazi group called The Black Orchestra.

For me one of the weaknesses of the novel is the character of Kurt as I found it hard to relate to him. Given that his mother lives in Ireland and he had studied at university there I couldn’t understand why he had returned to Germany at a time when, for people not sympathetic to the Nazi cause, it must have been horrendous. By 1940 Kurt had already rejected Nazism and there was no evidence that he had been a supporter even before that. There are other characters such as Johann, who embraces Nazism out of self-preservation or Blesset whose father was a brown shirt and was indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth but Kurt has no allegiance to Nazism and seemingly few links to Germany.

There is much to recommend this novel; it is a wealth of information about an important period of history which lends itself perfectly to fiction. When it works, Toner conveys the human price that was paid in such a way that it is both moving and unbearably tense. For me, however I would have preferred less of the factual information and more detailed characterisation as this would have allowed me to fully immerse myself into the story. Having said that, The Black Orchestra is a well written thriller and I think readers who enjoy history will get a lot out of it.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Burgas Affair by Ellis Shuman



The Burgas Affair by Ellis Shuman is a novel based on the 2012 bombing of a bus at Burgas airport which resulted in the deaths of 5 Israelis and 1 Bulgarian. The case was never categorically solved and Shuman uses this lack of certainty to create his own version of the event and the ensuing investigation.

The novel is set in both Bulgaria and Israel and, for me, one of the great strengths of the story is the way Shuman brings these places alive for the reader. In particular, Bulgaria is presented as a richly vibrant country with a varied landscape that includes The Black Sea, city life, rural villages and almost primal forest areas. Shuman uses a long train journey to great effect in order to showcase the diversity of people, ranging from urbanites to peasants and Gypsies. There are also constant reminders of Bulgaria’s Communist past.

Shuman uses 3rd person narrative to tell his story and one of his main characters is Detective Boyko Stanchev, a complicated individual who finds himself partnered with Ayala Navon, an analyst with the Israeli intelligence team who have been sent to seek justice for their dead countrymen. Immediately the reader is introduced to a clash of cultures as the Bulgarian team adopt an old-fashioned style of policing with little sense of urgency while the Israelis are a high-tech force used to dealing with bombs and terrorism.

The idea of how the past impinges on the present is a major theme in Shuman’s novel as there are constant reminders both in the physical landscape and the plot. The narrative shifts from 2012 to 2001 when Boyko’s past begins to catch up with him. We see him as an ambitious young policeman with a determination to get on at any cost. His ambition drives him to commit an immoral and illegal act and this eventually returns to haunt him. Thus his past collides with the bombing investigation causing lots of dramatic diversions within the storyline and putting not only his own life but also Ayala’s in jeopardy.

Likewise with Ayala, her arrival in Bulgaria is personally significant because her father was born there and she feels it is part of her heritage. Initially, Ayala seems quite cold and distant but using flashbacks Shuman shows us how she has been shaped by her past. The novel conveys the horror of what it must be like to live in a war zone where bombs are the norm, especially for a child. Ayala is anxious and as a teenager developed an obsession with suicide bombers, a subject that ironically will impact on her family greatly. Ayala is driven by her past to find those guilty for the bombing and her intensity is the perfect foil for the more unprofessional Boyko.

Shuman does a great job of creating a very unsympathetic character in Boyko. He lives an empty life in a one roomed apartment, drinking and sleeping with prostitutes. He describes himself as a “virile Bulgarian man,” but seemed to me more of a misogynist. He describes his ex-wife in the most negative of terms – “the dowdy wife” – and seems to have no self-awareness at all. He’s surprised to find himself attracted to Ayala, “the female interloper,” and her coolness towards him seems to intensify his feelings. I found myself willing Ayala not to succumb to his less than appealing charms.

The Burgas Affair is a very readable novel; Shuman is clearly a talented writer and engages the reader early on, conveying the horror and mystery surrounding the bombing. He weaves a complex story all the while exerting complete control over it. Boyko’s past and the investigation dance around each other until they collide in an explosive finale. There is crime, thrills, a hint of romance and corruption to keep the reader enthralled.

If you enjoy a story with lots going on then you’ll like this one. The action is relentless, spilling across Bulgaria and Israel to great effect.