31 January 2017

#Blogtour: Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson - Extract and giveaway!

I'm delighted today to offer something a little special... thanks to Karen at Orenda Books I have the first chapter of Ragnar Jónasson's new Dark Iceland novel, Rupture, and a chance to win some goodies... a signed, limited edition hardback copy of the book, a bookmark and some Icelandic
chocolates to eat while you read it!

To enter, retweet the pinned Tweet on @bluebookballoon advertising this post before 12 noon on Saturday 4 February. I'll choose a winner at random after that.

Chapter 1

It had been an evening like any other, spent stretched out on the sofa. 

They lived in a little apartment on the ground floor of an old house at the western end of Reykjavík, on Ljósvallagata. It was positioned in the middle of an old-fashioned terrace of three houses, built back in the 1930s. Róbert sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked out of the window at the little front garden. It was getting dark. It was March, when weather of any description could be expected; right now it was raining. There was something comforting about the patter of raindrops against the window while he was safely ensconced indoors. 

His studies weren’t going badly. A mature student at twenty eight, he was in the first year of an engineering degree. Numbers had always been one of his pleasures. His parents were accountants, living uptown in Árbær, and while his relationship with them had always been difficult, it was now almost non-existent; his lifestyle seemed to have no place in their formula for success. They had done what they could to steer him towards bookkeeping, which was fair enough, but he had struck out on his own. 

Now he was at university, at last, and he hadn’t even bothered to let the old folks know. Instead, he tried to focus on his studies, although these days his mind tended to wander to the Westfjords. He owned a small boat there, together with a couple of friends, and he was already looking forward to summer. It was so easy to forget everything – good and bad – when he was out at sea. The rocking of the boat was a tonic for any stress and his spirit soared when he was enveloped by the complete peace. At the end of the month he’d be heading west to get the boat ready. For his friends, the trip to the fjords was a good excuse to go on a drinking binge. But not for Róbert. He had been dry now for two years – an abstinence that had become necessary after the period of serious drinking that began with the events that had unfolded on that fateful day eight years earlier. 

It was a beautiful day. There was scarcely a breath of wind on the pitch, it was warm in the summer sun and there was a respectable crowd. They were on their way to a convincing win against an unconvincing opposition. Ahead of him lay training with the national youth team, and later that summer the possibility of a trial with a top Norwegian side. His agent had even mentioned interest from some of the teams lower down in the English leagues. The old man was as proud as hell of him. He had been a decent football player himself but never had the chance to play professionally. Now times had changed, there were more opportunities out there. 

Five minutes were remaining when Róbert was passed the ball. He pushed past the defenders, and saw the goal and the fear on the goalkeeper’s face. This was becoming a familiar experience; a five–nil victory loomed. 

He didn’t see the tackle coming, just heard the crack as his leg broke in three places and felt the shattering pain. He looked down, paralysed by the searing agony, and saw the open fracture. 

It was a sight that was etched into his memory. The days spent in hospital passed in a fog, although he wouldn’t forget the doctor telling him that his chances of playing football again – at a professional level, at any rate – were slim. So he gave it all up, and sought solace in the bottle; each drink quickly followed by another. The worst part was that, while he made a better recovery than the doctor expected, by the time he was fit, it was too late to turn the clock back on his football career. 

Now, though, things were better. He had Sunna, and little Kjartan had a place in his heart as well. But despite this, his heart harboured some dark memories, which he hoped he could keep hidden in the shadows. 

It was well into the evening when Sunna came home, tapping at the window to let him know that she had forgotten her keys. She was as beautiful as ever, in black jeans and a grey roll-neck sweater. Raven hair, long and glossy, framed her strong face. To begin with, it had been her eyes that had enchanted him, closely followed by her magnificent figure. She was a dancer, and sometimes it was as if she danced rather than walked around their little apartment, a confident grace imbuing every movement. 

He knew he had been lucky with this one. He had first chatted to her at a friend’s birthday party, and they’d clicked instantly. They’d been together for six months now, and three months ago they had moved in together. 

Sunna turned up the heating as she came in; she felt the cold more than he did. 

‘Cold outside,’ she said. Indeed, the chill was creeping into the room. The big living-room window wasn’t as airtight as it could have been, and there was no getting used to the constant draughts. 

Life wasn’t easy for them, even though their relationship was becoming stronger. She had a child, little Kjartan, from a previous relationship and was engaged in a bitter custody battle with Breki, the boy’s father. To begin with, Breki and Sunna had agreed on joint custody, and at the moment Kjartan was spending some time with his father. 

Now, though, Sunna had engaged a lawyer and was pressing for full custody. She was also exploring the possibility of continuing her dance studies in Britain, although this was not something that she and Róbert had discussed in depth. But it was also a piece of news that Breki would be unlikely to accept without a fight, so it looked as if the whole matter would end up in court. Sunna believed she had a strong enough case, though, and that they would finally see Kjartan returned to her full time. 

‘Sit down, sweetheart,’ Róbert said. ‘There’s pasta.’ 

‘Mmm, great,’ she said, curling up on the sofa. 

Róbert fetched the food from the kitchen, bringing plates and glasses and a jug of water. 

‘I hope it tastes good,’ he said. ‘I’m still finding my way.’ 

‘I’m so hungry it won’t matter what it tastes like.’ 

He put on some relaxing music and sat down next to her. 

She told him about her day – the rehearsals and the pressure she was under. Sunna was set on perfection, and hated to get anything wrong. 

Róbert was satisfied that his pasta had been a success; nothing outstanding, but good enough.

Sunna got to her feet and took his hand. ‘Stand up, my love,’ she said. ‘Time to dance.’ 

He stood up and wrapped his arms around her and they moved in time to a languid South American ballad. He slid a hand under her sweater and his fingertips stroked her back, unclipping her bra strap in one seamless movement. He was an expert at this. 

‘Hey, young man,’ she said with mock sharpness, her eyes warm. ‘What do you think you’re up to?’ 

‘Making the most of Kjartan being with his dad,’ Róbert answered, and they moved into a long, deep kiss. The temperature between them was rising, as was the temperature in the room, and before long they were making their way to the bedroom.

Out of habit, Róbert pushed the door to and drew the curtains across the bedroom window overlooking the garden. However, none of these precautions stopped the sounds of their lovemaking carrying across to the apartment next door. 

When everything was quiet again, he heard the indistinct slamming of a door, muffled by the hammering rain. His first thought was that it was the back door to the porch behind the old house. 

Sunna sat up in alarm and glanced at him, disquiet in her eyes. He tried to stifle his own fear behind a show of bravado and, getting to his feet, ventured naked into the living room. It was empty. 

But the back door was open, banging to and fro in the wind. He glanced quickly into the porch, just long enough to say that he had taken a look, and hurriedly pulled the door closed. A whole regiment of men could have been out there for all he knew, but he could make out nothing in the darkness. 

He then went from one room to another, his heart beating harder and faster, but there were no unwelcome guests to be seen. It was just as well that Kjartan was not at home. 

And then he noticed something that would keep him awake for the rest of the night. 

He hurried through the living room, frightened for Sunna, terrified that something had happened to her. Holding his breath, he made his way to the bedroom to find her seated on the edge of the bed, pulling on a shirt. She smiled weakly, unable to hide her concern. 

‘It was nothing, sweetheart,’ he said, hoping she would not notice the tremor in his voice. ‘I forgot to lock the door after I took the rubbish out; didn’t shut it properly behind me,’ he lied. ‘You know what tricks the wind plays out back. Stay there and I’ll get you a drink.’ 

He stepped quickly out of the bedroom and rapidly removed what he had seen. 

He hoped it was the right thing to do – not to tell Sunna about the water on the floor, the wet footprints left by the uninvited guest who had come in out of the rain. The worst part was that they hadn’t stopped just inside the back door. The trail had led all the way to the bedroom.

30 January 2017

Blogtour: Evil Games by Angela Marsons

As part of the Evil Games blogtour, I'm honoured today to feature a guest post by Angela Marsons, who's behind the brilliant DI Kim Stone crime series.

Angela's given us some thoughts on Dealing with Emotional Scenes - something which, as a reader, I can see is potentially very difficult but done right can add so much to the resonance of a book.

So - over to Angela...

Dealing with Emotional Scenes

One of my favourite parts of the writing process is tackling the emotional scenes in a story.  I enjoy the action scenes that move the story along at pace but I always sprinkle the narrative with scenes that I am just dying to write and then I write towards them.  In a way it’s like my reward for moving forward.

In Silent Scream I particularly enjoyed writing the scenes between the main character Kim Stone and Lucy, a spirited teenage girl with Muscular Dystrophy.  Each scene built on the bond of understanding that was growing between them that culminated in a very special friendship.

In Evil Games I found the scenes concerning child abuse very difficult to write but I wanted the reader to feel the same emotion as me as they read the book.  There was one particular scene in the book where the two young victims of abuse are questioned by a child psychologist while Kim observes and although nothing graphic is discussed the horror for those poor girls was with me throughout.

Later in the book there is a particularly harrowing scene concerning a mother with post-natal psychosis which prompted me to walk away from the desk on more than one occasion before I could finish the chapter.

As the author the further I get into the book the more emotional involved I get with writing the difficult scenes.  As I write I’m also getting to know my characters and feeling their emotions and it is not uncommon for me to feel rage or injustice at what is happening even though I’m the one making it happen.  Realistically, I know I could change the fate of my characters but once the story has cemented in my head I have to move forward and write their destiny.

The chapters that affect me the most are normally scenes dealing with loss.  It’s not uncommon to find me hunched over the desk with a pencil in one hand and a tissue in the other.  I have written scenes where I can barely see the page through the tears streaming down my cheeks.  It’s quite strange to have a job where you wring out your emotions almost on a daily basis.  On more than one occasion my partner as come running through to me fearing a family death or tragedy upon hearing my loud, messy sobbing.  Luckily she understands when I explain that one of my characters just died.

Once the scene is complete I step away and take a few breaths or work the emotion out by taking a walk or playing with my dog.  Anything to just balance the feelings with something positive that takes me away from the situation.  Removing myself immediately allows me to feel the emotion but not become absorbed by it.

And then I go back and start editing and it starts all over again but at least this time I know what’s coming.

Evil Games was published on 26 January. My review is here.

29 January 2017

Review: Evil Games by Angela Marsons

Evil Games (DI Kim Stone No 2)
Angela Marsons
Zaffre, 26 January 2017
PB, 381pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of the book for review. I'm also honoured to feature a guest post by Angela here tomorrow as part of the blogtour.

I loved this story.

Alex knew that she had broken this woman. She had played on her weaknesses like a violin. Not a flicker of movement or emotion was present.... 

Alex Thorne is a powerful and ruthless antagonist, not a stereotyped criminal but a manipulator, and truly intelligent, committed and pitiless person with none of the usual weaknesses that bring down villains in police stories. But... something is lacking in her:

Now, Alex's database told her the correct response for her current situation was shock. 

Kim Stone is a wounded, complex character: not the traditional detective burned out by the job and taking refuge in drink but a person with a dark, dark past and serious issues who has come to police work as a way of fighting her demons - only to be threatened by that past in ways she could never have imagined.

Together they make this book into an epic chess game, played out in conversations and interviews as the two jostle for advantage measures in gestures, verbal hesitations and influence. Between, they search frantically for information on each, anything that will yield a slight advantage.

At the same time, Kim has a distressing and frustrating enquiry on: two young girls abused, the father likely to walk because of a police mistake. A case she takes very personally indeed.

And she's also trying to cope with a murder, a new dog, and insomnia. Not necessarily in that order.

While focussing on some pretty obnoxious people I found this a believable and intriguing story. Marsons expertly shows the reader just enough, but never quite fills in the last link, so that although you broadly know what's happening it's never clear who has the upper hand or what may be going on under the surface.

The characters are also credible, in particular Stone's team who are all given their own personalities and are not just police shaped tropes. And she sets the book in a recognisable Black Country of shopping centres, flats, canals and dingy pubs. The epic duel between Stone and Thorne is all the more absorbing for taking place in such a, well, normal landscape.

It doesn't all make easy ready - some horrific things happen or are hinted at, and innocence is no defence here. And in a foreword, Marsons makes clear that a character like Alex Thorne is scarily plausible - leaving me wondering how many strangers I cross paths with might, really, be conscienceless sociopaths...

An excellent, disturbing and entertaining thriller.

I published some Q&A with Angela last year. Watch this space tomorrow for her thoughts on Dealing with Emotional Scenes!

28 January 2017

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Image from Tor.com
Passing Strange
Ellen Klages
Tor.com, 24 January 2017
e-book/ PB, 160pp

San Francisco is a city well-suited to magic...

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Helen Young went into her bedroom. She changed into a pair of blue silk pyjamas, brushed her hair, and put on a touch of lipstick. Then she got into bed, turned out the light, and went to sleep for the last time humming a Cole Porter tune until she and the melody simply drifted away.

So ends one of the characters is this hauntingly beautiful tale of life in the queer melting pot of 40s San Francisco.

Helen is one of a group of young women who work or socialise in Mona's, a club where girls can be boys. Whether working as entertainers not only for their own circle but for the plump mid-west tourists who come to gawp, or simply drifting among like minded exiles from straight society, they stand by each other, providing rooms when needed, meals, cover from the police and moral support.

Haskell is at the centre of this circle. She is a talented artist who makes her living drawing pictures for pulp comic books: the kind of thing where a scantily dressed woman is chained down and menaced by a purple monster. Why does she draw such pictures? Well, it's where the money is, but she has other reasons, as we - and Emily, newly acquainted with the little group of friends - gradually learn. Haskell's life hasn't been easy and she is in a sense perhaps still on the run from her past.

There are others in the group too, including some with startling abilities (like being able to shrink space - but only in that misty city of magic, San Francisco) and we see their joys and sorrows, but it's Haskell and Emily that this lovely, romantic book focusses on. Everything seems against them: the law, society, the looming war (deftly illustrated by the presence of a refugee girl from England), an abusive husband. But they have good friends.

How this setup leads to that ending, to Helen's ending decades later, I won't say because the tension of the story hangs upon it. It's a taut, well-contsructed plot, one of those books where no word is superfluous. And there are some beautiful passages (see especially the parts describing the 1940 World's Fair, taking place on an island in the Bay, just as the rest of the world went to pieces).

I hadn't read any Klages before but I will be looking for more of her writing after this. (You can find a bonus story by here.) An excellent book that features well drawn characters, abounds in atmosphere and celebrates a period and setting I was completely unaware of. (Oh, and look at that beautiful cover!)

If you want to know more about the book, listen to this episode of the Coode Street Podcast where Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe discuss it with the author. It's a good listen.

26 January 2017

Review - Empire Games

Image from http://www.antipope.org/
Empire Games (Empire Games, No 1)
Charles Stross
Tor UK, 26 January

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley.

One of my most anticipated books for 2017, Empire Games picks up the story of the world-walking Clan seventeen years on.

In Stross's multi-timeline Merchant Princes sequence (originally published as 6 books, collected as The Bloodline FeudThe Traders' War and The Revolution Trade) we saw the collision between the Clan and modern US society. It's 2020 in the four alternate timelines we saw in the earlier books. Not much is happening in Timeline 4 - subject to 2000 years of nuclear winter - or Timeline 1 - the Gruinmarkt, nuked by the US in 2003.

But lots is going on in a world close to ours, where the Department for Homeland Security is putting together a plan to pursue the Clan. And in that of the New American Commonwealth, where the Clan took refuge - and where Miriam has risen to a high position in the revolutionary government.

The players are ready. The board is laid out. The Empire Games begin.

It's very enjoyable and very readable. The main protagonist, Rita, has a heritage that, as we soon learn, makes her something of an outsider in a fiercely inward looking and distrustful society. Part of that's visible - her skin colour - part of it's less obvious. If you want a glimpse of the atmosphere in this book, look at the cover image above. Security cameras. Cars moving along, with little ID tags. A crosswire... the alternate US has become a panopticon state, everything and everybody surveilled in an effort to spot worldwalker activity. If you apparently don't fit in, you'd better work hard to keep your nose clean and your profile harmless.

Strangely, it's an atmosphere that makes Kurt feel very much at home. But then he's a defector from the former GDR, East Germany, and familiar with the ways of the Stasi. A comparison Stross makes very pointedly: but also one that enables a survivor with a good grasp of old-fashioned tradecraft and a developed geocaching hobby to achieve quite a bit under the radar. What part will Kurt play in this evolving story? We don't know yet, but I think he'll be important... not least because he's Rita's adoptive grandfather.

I quickly warmed to Kurt and Rita: they're both competent, serious players of the Empire Games. Indeed, I found this book as a whole pretty compelling from the start. In mode it closely resembles a technothriller, with a lot of patient exposition of methods, technologies and goals as Rita comes to the attention of the DHS who soon have plans for her. Beneath that, though, there's the portal fantasy setup of the Merchant Princes and behind that legend, something that begins to look very like hard(ish) SF. It's a credit to the writer that he manages to keep these balls - and more - in the air at once, while still spinning a very readable story, even though the first half of this is largely setup. Is that too much? For some authors/ stories perhaps, but not here. It's all fascinating and, as I said, very readable (and this is the first in a trilogy, so not disproportionate).

Above all, I think Stross has captured something about the atmosphere of the times. No, we haven't been attacked by extra-dimensional drug smugglers with a stolen nuke: but the drivers are there, the impetus towards surveillance ("if it only saves one life..." "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear..."), the converging technologies, the rising distrust of the strange, the stranger, the out-of-place ("if you see something, say something"). We're on a knife edge, and the shows one side on which we could fall.

There's also beautiful, inventive clever and, in places knowing writing, whether references to people vanishing into "night and mist", to the "white heat of a technological revolution", to a "Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence" (or MITI) directing tech progress in the parallel timeline or a sardonic reference to the American "Heimatschutzministerium" (doesn't that sound chilling?) We get blended Churchill and Picard ("Action This Day" combined with "make it so") and to end with, "And so Kurt Douglas... raised his baton to summon the Wolf Orchestra back to life, to play the cold war blues one last time."

It's a fast, compulsive and intelligent story, at once familiar and alien. Cracking good SF/ Fantasy/ thriller (take your pick) and I'd strongly recommend.

Do you need to have read Merchant Princes (in either  incarnation)? It would be helpful but is not not necessary - the essentials are given here (though those are very enjoyable books... so why wouldn't you want to read them?)

25 January 2017

Review - The Steel Kiss (a Lincoln Rhyme Thriller) by Jeffery Deaver

Image from hodder.co.uk
The Steel Kiss
Jeffery Deaver
Hodder, 26 January 2017
PB, 632pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of this book to review.

Detective Amelia Sachs is hot on the trail of a murderer, chasing him through a Brooklyn department store, when her pursuit is fatally interrupted. An escalator gives way, forcing Sachs down into the machinery to help the man trapped in its depths... and enabling the suspect to flee.

But was it simply a freak accident? Could the killer's presence in the store really be a coincidence?

As the body count threatens to grow, Sachs and forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme realise they are facing one of their most formidable opponents ever. Someone able to turn the most commonplace product into a murder weapon. Someone who can kill by remote control...

One of the joys - and absolute, unearned, privileges - of book blogging is getting sent copies of books you'd otherwise overlook. There are lots of books published: too many to ever realise what you're missing and I - like, I'm sure, all readers - have huge areas of the literary landscape that I've never explored, authors I haven't read, genres I've never, or barely, touched.

Well, one of those authors is Deaver and one of those genres is thrillers (though I've slightly more acquaintance with thrillers than I have with, say, Westerms or Romance). So it was great to be offered The Steel Kiss for review by someone whose opinions I really trust, and I have really enjoyed the book. An analogy from physics, my first love, might be that I'm stuck in a local minimum - a ballbearing in a dip halfway up a hill - and a bit of energy in the system, a bit of noise, can jostle me out of it so I can roll down the slope to a better place. Being offered this book achieved that.

It focusses on forensics genius (ex) Captain Lincoln Rhyme of NYPD and his friends and colleagues - principally Detective Amelia Sachs - over a few days as they track down a serial killer.

I'm obviously coming into a series midway through here but Deaver gives just enough detail to pick up what's been happening - Rhyme leaving the Force after a case goes bad and Sachs, his partner (in life, not just in work) struggling to come to terms with that. Some of the other events described here may or may not have featured in earlier books, I just don't know, but it doesn't matter. The book tells you what you need to know.

I was impressed at how Deaver builds up the personalities of the team: it's a rather strange setup, with them working out of Rhyme's private residence in New York: he's quadriplegic so this gives him the adaptations he needs to contribute to the case. But it works well, the various individuals striking off each other (they include Juliette Archer, a student from Rhyme's forensics course, who may be a rival for Amelia, a small family of cops, one of who has some private business of his own which forms one of the subplots, and Thom, Rhyme's carer who is a genius with baking).

Rhyme himself is at the centre of the story, he's something of a Sherlock Holmes figure both in his irascibility and focus (the others tease him rather over his insistence on correct grammar, by constantly inventing new verbs - agendising and de-weaponising, for example). It's a very visual story: Deaver throws in replicas of the forensic white boards, which gradually fill as more information arrives and, at one point, diagrams of a chess game

Despite this, and the humour, the team's task is serious. A killer is striking, seemingly at random, in the heart of New York. He can apparently manipulate everyday objects, making a murder weapon out of a car or an escalator. How is he doing it, and why?

At the same time Deaver shows us the story through the eyes of the killer, who is transcribing a schoolboy diary that may or may not provide some clues about his motivation for killing the "Shoppers" that he targets. Not a lot is given away - we don't know until a good way in what, exactly, the killer is up to, beyond the grim hints about his "Toy Room" and his penchant for sharp tools...

It's a tense story, despite the length of the book (600+ pages is normally what I expect in Big Fantasy) and despite two subplots - one involving Nick, Amelia's ex-boyfriend, a disgraced cop newly out of prison who wants to prove his innocence, and one following Ron Polaski, the aforementioned team member who's up to something odd - to which a fair amount of space is devoted. At first I thought these were a distraction and that they were taking away tension from the main story - but Deaver knows what he's doing and these stories-in-a-story counterpoint the main action and illustrate the sprawling nature of life - and policing - in New York. They also, perhaps, help the book take its place in the longer sequence of stories about Rhyme and his crew.

Finally, in a nice touch for the UK reader, at the end Deaver gives a glimpse of one of Rhyme's exploits closer to home, showing him perhaps at his most Holmesian.

Fun, with a rollicking pace offsetting the grisly nature of the crimes and above all, an ability to laugh at itself, this is a great thriller and I'm so glad it was recommended to me.

24 January 2017

Blogtour Review: Deep Down Dead

Deep Down Dead
Steph Broadribb
Orenda Books, 15 January 2017
PB, 334pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a copy of the book.

Full disclosure: I attended the launch party for this book and consumed a great deal of excellent cake provided by Karen of Orenda books. I've also taken part in several Orenda blog tours and highly rate what they are doing.

So it was a slightly nervous moment when I opened this book and began reading - because if it wasn't excellent, I don't where I'd be*.

Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong. The fugitive she’s assigned to haul back to court is none other than JT, Lori’s former mentor – the man who taught her everything she knows … the man who also knows the secrets of her murky past. Not only is JT fighting a child exploitation racket operating out of one of Florida’s biggest theme parks, Winter Wonderland, a place where ‘bad things never happen’, but he’s also mixed up with the powerful Miami Mob...

The first in a series, this introduces the formidable Lori, bounty hunter, former exotic dancer, former abused spouse, all round whirlwind of awesomeness. Lori's not some abstract campaigner for justice: yes, she has rules for her work - rules her mentor taught her with sweat and blood - but her focus is entirely practical: raising the money to pay the medical bills for her kid, who's seriously ill and needs expensive care.

So it's a very hard-nosed story, set in a pretty uncompromising underworld.

The stakes are high, and the body count higher.

No-one is noble.

Every move is a betrayal.

I just loved it. Broadribb excels at creating atmosphere. She gives Lori a distinctive voice and makes you want to listen to her - whether she's musing on her past and how she became what she is, coldly assessing her chances in an unequal fight, or engaging in lightning repartee with JT. And, wow, those two... there's more than a spark there. Again Broadribb, makes their relationship convincing, makes you want to know more. (What happens after? What happened BEFORE? - We hear a little about this, but I'm sure there's more to tell.)

This core reality carries the book, not perhaps effortlessly, but perfectly credibly, through the end-to-end madness that a certain sort of thriller demands. You really don't get any let up here: there are fights, car chases, injuries, killings, betrayals and double crossings, all set amongst a kaleidoscopic, relentless pursuit through several states. And plenty of jeopardy. It makes me tired just thinking about it, but Broadribb has Lori and JT keep moving and keep in the game - a game whose rules they're trying to work out as they go along despite it all. She doesn't fall into that trap of having the reader cry out despairingly "DO THE THING" because JT and Lori know what they're about, they are worthy players of this deadly game.

That Cake !!!
And behind all the action there's certainly a very nasty idea, a real flaw in Paradise, which pits the two against some truly powerful people. It isn't just a game. Or if is, it's an evil one. They can't expect any help and the chase only digs them in deeper.

I found it a truly compulsive read, with engaging and complicated characters and a vivid and well realised setting. (I wasn't a surprised to hear that Broadribb had actually trained as a bounty hunter as part of the research for the book: she's yet to tase anybody, apparently).

No reason to be worried, then: reading this book was time well spent and I'd strongly encourage you to do the same.

And - as the teaser at the end reveals - there will be more adventures for Lori...


*Oh yes I do: I wouldn't review it.

22 January 2017

Behind Her Eyes

Behind Her Eyes
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 26 January 2017
HB, 373pp

Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

I may be a teeny bit biased when it comes to Sarah Pinborough's books - I have yet to read one that I didn't enjoy. But really. You have to read this book, just do. I'm going to be nagging everyone to do that and you may as well give in sooner rather than later.

Not only is it Pinborough at her very best (and that's something in itself) but it's Pinborough leaping and vaulting over genre boundaries, authorial conventions and the reader's sense of where the book is going. You may think you're got it sussed, but you haven't. Not for nothing has the hashtag #wtfthat ending been going round.

Which sort of makes it hard to review. I'm generally not precious about spoilers but - for once - I really, really mustn't say anything about the ending. Beyond, perhaps... no. Nothing.

Begin at the beginning then? It opens with what might almost be a spell:

Pinch myself and say I AM AWAKE once an hour.

Look at my hands. Count my fingers.

Look at clock (or watch), look away, look back.

Stay calm and focused.

Think of a door.

What's going on? Whose spell is it? What do they want?

This is the story of Adele, of David and of Louise.

Troubles Adele (we hear some of her thoughts) who desperately loves her husband David

David, who denies Adele a phone or credit cards, and has control of her money. Who seems himself desperately unhappy. Stressed. But controlling, in charge. Who moves the household from one place to another, changing jobs, sloughing off friendships.

And who fancies Louise.

Insecure Louise, still smarting from her divorce, a bit heavier than she'd like, devoted to her six year old son, ready for a little love or even just some tenderness.

It's also the story of a girl and boy in a lonely institution. Of the mind games and cruelties that people play on each other when they think they are in love, when they want things, when they are afraid. Of the lengths they'll go to.

It's a psychological thriller, very much so. But. If you've read Pinborough's last two books there is a sense in which it's the natural outgrowth of, a sort of thematic sequel to, both The Death House and 13 Minutes.  The flashbacks show a deep understanding of the younger versions of the characters and while the "now" parts are more adult-focussed, the truth of what's going on rests very much on how those people were formed, who they really were and as in those stories, Pinborough infuses naturalistic settings and real - oh how tangibly real - people with a delicate sensibility of horror. Like a little speck of blight in the perfect rose, or the whiff of death in a still life. Remember that thou shalt die.

Which I think distinguishes this story from the currently popular 'grit-lit' of the The Girl who did the Thing type. Yes, there is psychological tension here, by the bucketful. David - controlling, watchful, but desirable. What's his real agenda? Adele - well, we see her point of view, she tells us she's up to something but it doesn't quite make sense. Is she the victim, trying the regain her freedom? Or the villain? Does she want revenge? For what exactly?

And Louise - what's her game? Is she really Adele's friend or will she betray her with David?

Together these three wheel and leap through the story like gymnasts. The reader is never quite sure what to expect. Louise is the one who sets herself the task of solving the mystery: she feels that only by understanding Adele's and David's past can she understand their present and free herself from them. She's helped by a battered notebook - but we, the readers, know more than her as tricksy Pinborough gives us both Adele's thoughts and the occasional flashback. It's all about viewpoints, I think, the past seen through different pairs of eyes.  And information: who knows what about who, and when. Towards the end of the book one character compares things to a jigsaw puzzle that's about to be completed - but that's optimistic. These pieces keep changing shape and colour.

If that all sounds a bit clever-clever, don't worry - this is more than a pacey thriller, but it is, also, a very pacey thriller. From that first page, it casts its spell (Pinborough's also done some compelling versions of classic fairy stories, and it shows) and the reader - well, this one - just has to keep on, sympathising by turns with Louise, Adele and David: wary by turns of Louise, Adele and David, baffled at what's happening, but knowing, just knowing that there's stuff bobbing under the surface.

And praying it's just a lump of weed, not a putrid corpse.

This book remained in my thoughts long after reading - it's not so much (or not only) what happens in the story, but what you realise will happen after.

Creepy as hell, and simply brilliant.

14 January 2017

New Year, new Avatar

If you're sharp eyed you may spotted that my avatar has changed.

I originally named the blog Blue Book Balloon after my Twitter (or the Twitter handle after my blog... to be honest I forget which came first). Either way the name arose when one sunny Sunday afternoon we heard a roaring sound in the sky, looked up, and saw this balloon floating by.

Something about it appealed to me - the blue sky, the blue balloon - and I adopted it as an avatar. I've since then used the pic so many times - it's been cropped, resized, converted, uploaded, downloaded that I'm not even sure the one above is the original photo, though I think it is.

In any case, the version on Twitter was distinctive enough to attract the attention of local balloon enthusiasts, one of whom knew who owned the balloon itself. It was a bit embarrassing at first and I got some mistaken follows from people who assumed I'd be discussing weather conditions and the latest advances in lightweight burner technology but I think they soon realised it was mainly books.

Anyway, jumping forward a bit, this Christmas my wonderful family bought me this as a present.

I should say commissioned, because this stained glass Blue Book Balloon is a one-off, specially made by Purple Urchin stained glass. We have bought various pieces from Jackie before, including a Nativity set - they make distinctive ornaments and lovely presents. (Her studio is open during Oxfordshire Artweeks if you're passing this way when they're on).

So - I've updated the various places where I use the balloon to identify myself - my Goodreads, my Twitter and this blog - and generally spruced things up for the New Year.

Well, it's better than a fitness programme...

12 January 2017

Blogtour! The Dry

The Dry
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 12 January 2017
HB 342pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of "The Dry" for review as part of the tour.

This is a well plotted, compelling and immersive crime novel set in a parched rural Australia. (Outback noir? Drought noir?)

It's the worst dry period for a hundred years, and Aaron Falk returns to the small town of Kiewarra, where he grew up for the funeral of a friend. Luke committed suicide: worse, he murdered his family first.

Aaron himself left under a cloud 20 years ago after his friend Ellie drowned, leaving a note with his name on it. He's not welcome - they won't serve him in the shops and the attitude is graphically demonstrated when someone fills his car with shit. But he is a ruthlessly efficient investigator of financial crime, who may just be the person to follow the money and prove Luke innocent. Together with the local policeman, he sets out to discover the truth.

But if Luke didn't kill his family and himself, there's another murderer out there... with unfinished business himself in the town, is Aaron he too close to events to help - is he, perhaps trying to avoid his open past guilt? By returning, will he stumble back into the trouble he avoided all those years ago. And what, exactly, did happen to Ellie?

So many questions. Is it too late to find answers?

I loved this story in so many ways.

There's the setting - the dusty, tinder dry town and its environs, the peeling, closed shops, the shabby school, the desperate farmers, all seem to denote a whole way of life on the inevitable slide whether you blame global warming, the world economy or those Chinese investors buying up land.

And the characters - Aaron, haunted by what happened when he was 16, Luke and Ellie (because Harper darts back and forward in time, giving us different perspectives and teasing with hints of the story).

Above all, perhaps, there is the sheer quality of the storytelling. The evolving relationship between Luke, Ellie, Aaron and Gretchen, all those years ago, is shown with such a well observed dynamic between the teenagers (even if it does lead to tragedy). Harper takes her time to show them growing apart and together then to introduce the family circumstances around that - always with the twin tragedies in view, always returning to the shattering effect of them on Aaron's life - and his attempts to put things right now.

Will interfering just cause more pain and - potentially - lead to a much greater disaster? Read this book to find out.

It's a great read, deep in atmosphere and psychological truth. NOT one to be missed.

11 January 2017

Review: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars

Image from http://www.4thestate.co.uk/
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars
Miranda Emmerson
Fourth Estate, 12 January 2017
HB, 304pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via Netgalley.

It doesn't happen often, but sometimes you get a book and read it and think "this is just perfect". Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars in such a book.

Set in swinging London in the mid 60s, on a few snow-bound days in November, it focuses on a small group of characters brought together - metaphorically: they never all meet and one is in the USA - by the disappearance of the actress, Iolanthe Green, then playing in the West End. The Miss Treadway of the title - Anna - is Lanny's dresser. Brennan - or, as he'd prefer to be called, Brandon - Hayes is the young Irish policeman trying to find her. Orla, Brennan's wide, and their daughter Gracie, also appear as does a young West Indian, Aloysius and the owner of the Turkish café on Neal Street above which Anna lives, and his family.

Emmerson has a deceptively simple style, very cinematic, in which she'll follow one character till they someone else, then switch to them, then to a third person. Sometimes she'll take someone's thoughts back to explore their earlier life, as with Orla, trapped at home by the burden of childcare and almost a stranger to her husband, showing how things came to be.

And there is a great deal to be explained. Several of these characters have mysteries about them. It slowly becomes clear that Lanny has been inventing and reinventing her life. Who are all the people she is paying money to? What happened to her parents? But you might expect that of an actress. It's more of a surprise to learn - gradually - of the other inventions and reinventions going on here. Brennan has a adopted a more English name to fit in among the Met Police, and ways to accompany it - looking the other way when a "coloured" man is arrested for no reason, beaten, traduced or when a girl is brought in for no crime worse that being out late at night in a short skirt. Ottmar, the café owner, has morphed from being a serious journalist back home on Cyprus to a driven supplier of exotic refreshments. Orla has changed. Anna has changed. Aloysius came to London expecting to be a gentleman like those he read about in Waugh and Christie - but now sees that he and his society aren't in those books.

Everybody is busy reinventing or rediscovering themselves, consciously or not, playing with identities, in a society that seems, almost visibly, to be delivering itself of its own future - from the music playing in the "coloured" bars to the memories of wars, of internment, to the stars "said to drink" in those Soho bars and clubs.

But just as you begin to think this is all about rose tinted nostalgia for the 60s, Emmerson pulls out her cosh and whacks you on the back of the head. There are desperate women, who will be ruined or be unable to cope if they have babies. There is casual racism, not even winked at by those in authority, simply accepted. There are all kinds of people dreaming of a better world but creeping round the edges of this one, trying not to draw attention, from the gay men in the top flat to Lanny herself who's buried on the edge of several kinds of ruin.

While the thread that draws this novel together is Lanny's disappearance and the search for her, and we might think at the start it's going to be a crime story or a detective novel, it isn't. There is detective work, yes, and some danger, but really, it's an exploration both of a very distinct time and place and of some brilliant characters who comes across very much as real people, making their way, living with regrets, looking backwards or forwards and trying to puzzle out who they are and where they're going. (And who everyone else is and where they're going to - with cues of class and accent and race studied and acted on and outsiders spotted and excluded: "Nothing can ever be too English, can it? Nothing can ever be too pure.")

There is some brilliantly sharp characterisation - Anna's tendency, for example, so see men as obstacles, as something awkward, potential problems, dangerous: it's a long time till we find out why. Or Aloysius saying sadly "I want the world to be a gentler place than it is... I don't think that is a many sentiment to have." The 'white person nod'. Two lovers who first met at a funeral and fell out of love when a child came along.

It is, simply, a breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking and evocative book. Buy it, read it, get it for your friends, family and workmates. Do it now. Go on!

Blogtour! Tell me a Lie by CJ Carver

I'm welcoming CJ Carver to the blog, as part of the blog tour for her new book Tell Me a Lie which is published TOMORROW by Bonnier. It's the next gripping international thriller in her brilliant Dan Forrester series.

An aging oligarch in Siberia gathers his henchmen to discuss an English accountant...

It's Dan's wife...

As part of the celebrations, CJ has written some top tips on how to use a country’s culture in your writing. Today, she's covering how having an awareness of social systems thickens the plot.

Over to her...

First, the swearing.

Profanity is second nature to Australians. It’s regularly used to express frustration, for effect, or for humour. For example, “bastard” is usually a term of endearment in Australia and isn’t considered swearing.

I used the word “bastard” a lot in Blood Junction, and where I was commended by the Sydney Morning Herald on my authentic dialogue, the British press called it “strong.”

Secondly, the history.

I didn’t set out to write about what is now called the stolen generation, but when I sent my character, journalist India Kane, to Australia looking for her roots, this ugly history began to make itself known through an Aboriginal policeman who befriends her. I used it as a sub-plot to enrich the story and (hopefully) inform as well as entertain.

Thirdly, the xenophobia.

Not all Aussies are xenophobic – some are immensely proud of their melting-pot culture - but there are plenty who are. When I read about refugees interned in remote outback camps sewing their and their children’s lips together in protest at their treatment, I knew I had another rich sub-plot.

Each time I look at setting one of my books overseas, I start looking for profound aspects in the country I’m studying.

For example in Tell Me a Lie, the main plot is driven by Russia’s social system. The people’s need for a great leader even if he imprisons, exiles or executes millions of people without due process. Take President Putin. He’s a ruthless, cold-blooded, corrupt ex-KGB officer but the majority of Russian’s revere him for being a “strong man” thanks to being brainwashed by the media which is, needless to say, controlled by the government.

As I got to know Russia better, another sub-plot began to emerge. This one was to do with the psychology of its people. Russians are deep thinkers. They love to laugh, talk and share stories. They love to gossip about mutual friends when they’re not around. They can be blunt to the point of rudeness. But above all, Russians are passionate and fiercely loyal to their country. It was this immense and all inspiring devotion that helped drive the book to its finale.

The third thread I used was Russian spies. Ever since the Soviet era, organised, clandestine agents have operated in the West with daring and ingenuity. A top British intelligence official has recently warned there are now more Russian spies working in Britain than during the Cold war. What better story hook could I want than having a sleeper agent in Moscow demanding a face-to-face meeting with Dan Forrester, my hero?

© CJ Carver 2016

Tell Me a Lie | CJ Carver | Bonnier, 12 January 2012 | PB, 496pp

You can buy Tell Me a Lie from your local bookshop, or here, here or here. Next stop on the tour tomorrow is Crime Thriller Hound.

CJ Carver is the bestselling author of seven crime fiction novels including Blood Junction. She has won the CWA debut dagger and the Barry Award for Best British Crime Fiction.

CJ was born in the UK and grew up on one of the country's first organic farms, before a holiday in Australia at age 22 turned into a ten-year stay.

She has been a long-distance rally driver and is also the founding judge for Women’s World Car of The Year. Her mother, Mary Seed, set the Australian land speed record in 1957.