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.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Ryan Kaine: On the Rocks by Kerry J Donovan

Ryan Kaine: On the Rocks by Kerry J Donovan is the second book in the Ryan Kaine series and picks up where On the Run finished. Ideally it’s probably best to read the series in order but there are enough hints at the back story to make this novel work as a standalone. This is also helped by the fact that Kaine is on new territory with a new cast of characters.

Donovan builds the tension from the onset with the use of times and dates as chapter headings which emphasises the fast pace of the novel as the action takes place over a 48 hour period. What’s more the clock is ticking because a teenage boy is in peril and needs to be rescued before the elements take their toll on him.

The injured boy, Martin Princeton, provides the link to On the Run as the end of that novel saw Ryan Kaine pledging to redeem himself for the part he played in the shooting down of a plane which cost 83 lives. Martin’s brother was one of the victims and so Kaine feels duty bound to help him and consequently save his family from yet more heartache. The rescue mission takes him to the Scottish highlands where Martin has seemingly wandered off and become lost or worse.

The change of location injects the story with a renewed energy and the clash of cultures between the English interlopers and the local people provides lots of humour. The English characters, with the exception of Kaine, tend to be authority figures who have little respect for the locals or the difficult conditions that they will have to navigate. One such character is William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, head of an armed response unit who has been relocated from London due to his trigger happy approach.

There are references to characters from the previous novel but they play little part. Kaine is still hoping for a relationship with Lara Orchard who helped him in On the Run. She is being looked after by his friend, William “Rollo” Rollason while DCI Jones is working to clear his name. This novel belongs to the new characters, however, most of whom make up the mountain rescue team.

Iona McTay is a great female character, a tough no-nonsense doctor who goes out of her way to help Kaine. Her brother, Drew McTay, is a red-headed giant of a man with a good heart and strong moral code. Along with Gregor Abercrombie, the team leader, they form the heart of the rescue team and bring humour and warmth to what could otherwise be a harsh, violent, action story. The villains as I said are mostly the authority figures and Donovan offers a stark contrast between effective policing as represented by the officers on the ground simply doing their jobs and the careerists who don’t really care about anything other than how they look in the media and the impact this will have on their careers.

The main character is the eponymous Ryan Kaine, a 43 year old ex military officer. Despite the fact that he is tough and capable – if they were to make a film I envision Jason Statham – Donovan reveals him to be a kind, caring man who tries to do the right thing. He hates hurting people and mourns the loss of life, even if the individual may not deserve it. As he points out, “That’s someone’s son.” Early on in the novel Kaine defends a Sikh couple against a couple of racist thugs which puts him firmly on the right side of morality. Donovan maybe offers a wry political comment as the victim reflects how racism has intensified post Brexit.

Donovan chooses to write his novel in 3rd person which works extremely well as it allows for multiple viewpoints. Although the story is mostly from Kaine’s perspective we also get chapters from the members of the rescue team, Cody and Martin Princeton. This allows the tension to build as Donovan takes advantage of the fact that only Kaine and the reader are aware of his true role in the plane explosion.

I really enjoyed On the Run but I think On the Rocks is even better. Donovan is obviously a talented writer who takes his reader on an intense journey of both action and emotion. He seems to have settled into Ryan Kaine’s story so that the novel flows easily and engages the reader throughout. I can’t recommend this series enough if you enjoy action, adventure with a character who is not perfect but is willing to lay his life on the line for his beliefs.  

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A Kiss Before Killing by Keith McCarthy

A Kiss Before Killing by Keith McCarthy is an addictive thriller that I found hard to put down. The novel is one of many featuring pathologist John Eisnenmenger although this is the first one that I’ve read.

The novel opens with the seeming suicide of a prisoner whilst in custody. The man’s death brings Dr Claire Woodforde to the attention of Eisenmenger and his former lover DCI Beverley Wharton due to her claims that his death was suspicious and linked to other unexplained deaths in the hospital where she works. McCarthy then introduces a serial killer who is leaving tortured, dismembered bodies around the city as a seemingly unconnected storyline.

McCarthy uses third person narrative to tell his story and this works particularly well as we are given an insight into all of the major characters. McCarthy’s skill as a writer is evident in the control he exerts over the complex threads that make up the plot. He creates layer upon layer of mystery and tension which evolve into an almost fever-pitch denouement. I found myself reading until much later than was sensible as I was desperate to find out how the story was going to end.

This is definitely a plot driven novel but it is supported by a strong cast of characters. I particularly liked Beverley Wharton, the tough, no-nonsense DCI who lives her life almost like a man. She’s confrontational, unconcerned about other people’s opinions of her and takes lovers as and when she pleases. She is partnered with rookie detective, Tom Bayes and their relationship is very enjoyable as they move from distrust and dislike to a positive working relationship and potential friendship.

It is through Bayes that McCarthy shows the toll that working on the front line and dealing with murder cases has on investigators. Wharton has become hardened and cynical in order to deal with the horrors she sees. Eisenmenger is obsessive in his work and self aware enough to recognise that he is probably suffering from PTSD. Bayes on the other hand takes his work home with him and finds himself questioning his future with the police force. His partner finds it hard to support him as the stresses are so unique to his job. It raises the question of how isolating and damaging it must be to see the worst of human behaviour day in and day out.

The novel also raises lots of disquieting questions about the way hospital trusts work. Under immense pressure to perform successfully, the CEO and Chief Operating Officer of the trust collude to cover up potentially damaging information about the hospital even if this means allowing murders to go unsolved. Claire Woodforde is a whistle blower but is discredited by the hospital so that she appears mentally unstable. McCarthy cleverly remains ambiguous in his portrayal of Woodforde, presenting her as an unreliable, erratic source to heighten the tension and leave the wider political questions regarding the hospital unanswered.

I found the credibility of McCarthy’s plot very unsettling which is probably why it works so well. It’s entirely plausible that murders could take place in an environment where lethal drugs are readily available and who would be more able to kill without a trace of evidence than someone with medical training? All I can say is I’m glad I don’t have any hospital visits pending.

I really enjoyed this book and if you like thrillers with lots of twists and turns that take you to unexpected places then this is one for you.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Parallel Lies by Georgia Rose

I have been looking forward to the release of Parallel Lies by Georgia Rose for quite a while as I am such a fan of her previous work – The Grayson Trilogy. All I can say by way of introduction is this deliciously intriguing novel did not disappoint.

The beauty of Rose’s writing is that it is so understated the action creeps up on the reader, almost like peeling an onion, each layer revealing a new dimension to the novel. The story begins in the village of Crowbridge where on the surface life passes at a gentle pace but there are hints from the onset that things may not be as idyllic as they superficially seem.

This is particularly personified by Rose’s protagonist Madeleine Ross, a twenty four year old single woman. She has made friendships in the village but no-one knows anything about her life before she relocated from London four years earlier. It is Madeleine’s voice that Rose uses to tell her story using first person narrative which is particularly effective. Madeleine demonstrates strength and a knowing self-awareness that draws the reader in immediately.

As the novel unfolds Madeleine’s secrets are slowly revealed as are her insecurities and failings. She grew up with little love or affection and is only able to express her needs through sex. This results in her pursuing a promiscuous and potentially emotionally damaging lifestyle. Despite the fact that she is intelligent and kind she doesn’t feel good enough. She feels the strain of pretending to be a “lovely girl” in the village but fears that if her new friends saw her life away from the village they would no longer like her.

Madeleine is better than she thinks she is and her relationships with the people in the village are a testament to this. In Kourtney, a young working class girl, she sees some of herself and goes out of her way to help her rise above her stagnating origins. She has a sisterly relationship with her neighbour Diane, a wonderfully free spirited woman in her 60s who has earned the reputation of being a witch.

One of the themes of Parallel Lies is poverty and the impact it has on children’s lives. Madeleine grew up in a one parent, dysfunctional home in Inner City London. Her mother was unfit to care for her which meant that Madeleine was left to her own devices and inevitably made bad choices which have led to life-long scars. Rose emphasises however that poverty is not just a big city problem and rural areas have their fair share too. In Crowbridge we meet the ostentatiously wealthy couple Letitia and Ben Pritchard but this is contrasted by Kourtney’s situation as she cares for her alcoholic mother and younger siblings with limited opportunities in the rural village where she was born.

Madeleine’s life changes when she meets Daniel Travers, the nephew of her boss. She is a security consultant for an insurance company and it is when describing Madeleine’s work that Rose demonstrates her skill at building the pace of the story to at times almost heart stopping tension. Through Daniel, Rose creates a new voice and in the chapters that he narrates she employs second person narrative which distinguishes it perfectly from Madeleine’s voice.

Rose uses Madeleine and Daniel’s relationship to explore the theme of trust. Madeleine has previously been unable to enjoy emotional relationships with men as she didn’t know how. Although Rose offers no censure of her protagonist’s life choices it’s obvious that her behaviour is born out of an inability to trust. At the same time Daniel, who prior to working for his uncle has led a feckless existence dropping out of university and unable to hold down a job, has to learn to trust Madeleine to take control of her own life without his interference.

Inevitably Madeleine’s past catches up with her and threatens to put her and everyone she cares about in danger. Relying on her innate intelligence she hatches a plan to free herself and keep everyone safe. Despite a shady past, Madeleine is morally honest and has a good heart but she has many hurdles to clear before she can be who she really wants to be.

One of the many things I like about Rose’s novels is the care and attention she applies to her characters. There are no throwaway characters and consequently the reader really cares about them all. Even the less likeable characters such as Letitia and Tag are presented in such a way that they elicit some sympathy for the insecurities and damage that is propelling their actions. Each of the villagers piques our interest in such a way that should she choose to Rose could tell each of their stories and I would be only too happy to read them.

The lightness of Rose’s touch is the perfect foil for the fact that Parallel Lies carries a serious, hard hitting message about poverty and the impact it has on children. Vulnerable young people being groomed and taken advantage of is a very relevant issue that Rose skilfully taps into. The quote that ran through my mind constantly as I read it was “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” (Frederick Douglass)

Parallel Lies is an intelligent, entertaining read which I devoured greedily in a few days. If you are looking for a thriller with a dark edge then I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Whispers In The Alders by H. A. Callum

Whispers in the Alders by W. A. Callum is an American based coming of age story. It is a thought provoking, lyrical novel that is permeated with an air of tragedy.

The novel is written in first person narrative from the point of view of Aubrey Worthington, the only child of an affluent couple. Due to the peripatetic nature of her father’s job, Aubrey has spent her life moving around the country which has made it hard for her to fit in. She’s a lonely, introspective girl until her arrival at Alder Ferry when she is thirteen. It is here that she forms a deep friendship with local boy, Tommy.

Callum uses his novel to raise lots of interesting ideas. Aubrey’s father is the Vice President of a conglomerate that takes over companies, assimilating their contracts and ultimately making the workers redundant. Aubrey refers to her father as the “grim reaper”. What’s unusual is the way that we see how Stuart Worthington’s job impacts upon his daughter who, along with her father becomes hated by the communities in which they live. The Worthingtons buy their first home in Alder Ferry, a grand colonial house which is ironic given the nature of Stuart’s job. Although we sympathise with the concept of the workers losing their jobs Callum does not humanise them enough to allow us any perspective other than that of Aubrey.

Callum is obviously a skilled writer and his use of language is complex and dense. This is particularly the case when he describes the woods that are overlooked by Aubrey’s house. The house is personified as “The Grand Old Lady” and her surroundings are presented as somewhat mystical. The trees that form the Alders are given a life of their own, evoking both energy and a sense of peace that Aubrey has not known before.

The small town of Alder Ferry is also brought to life through Callum’s language. The desolation of the town and lack of opportunity cements the Catholic Church as the centre of the community. The novel questions the way this power allows abuse within the church to be overlooked as people are afraid to challenge the Priest’s authority and potentially lose the only sense of certainty that they have.

Alton “Tommy” Mackey is the heart of the novel. He is the grandson of Stuart Worthington’s nemesis, Mike Genardo and Aubrey’s only friend. Mike Genardo is the head of the union and a brutal drunk who subjects Tommy to a childhood defined by fear and loneliness. Tommy’s only refuge is reading and writing poetry and despite little encouragement or education, he is a talented, intelligent boy who inspires Aubrey to embrace her own learning. Tommy struggles with his sexuality and it is only in adulthood that he is able to accept who he is and find some semblance of happiness.

The comparison between Tommy and Aubrey is stark and really brings home the inequality of an education system dependent on wealth. Aubrey’s affluent background ensures that she goes to a good university despite that fact that it is Tommy who edits her work. Meanwhile Tommy is unable to fulfil his potential and has to join the Coast Guards in order to raise the money to pay for some classes at the community college.

If Tommy is the heart of the story then, for me, Aubrey is its Achilles heel. I really didn’t like her and didn’t fully understand whether I was supposed to. Initially I assumed that she was a purposefully unreliable witness to the events she was describing. Her childhood wasn’t ideal with a driven, morally bankrupt father and functioning alcoholic mother but she presented as a whiney, self-obsessed voice. I felt that Callum had maybe chosen not to humanise the parents in order to depict the simplistic, self-involved way that children see life. However about two thirds of the way in it became clear that there was no ambiguity and they were in fact the monsters that Aubrey described as were most of the residents of Alder Ferry. I wonder if the story might have benefitted from a lighter touch and less of a sense that everything is in black and white.

As I have said Callum’s skill as writer is never in any doubt, his use of language is extremely impressive. However, strangely I found that the complexity of the language sometimes got in the way of the narrative as it slowed everything down. None the less, this is a novel that is well worth reading as it raises so many relevant questions.

If you’re looking for something that may not be an easy read but will certainly get you thinking then I recommend that you give this one a try.