20 December 2020

#Review - Fortune favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Fortune Favours the Dead (Pentecost & Parker, 1)
Stephen Spotswood
Wildfire (Headline), 12 November 2020 (HB), 22 July 2021(PB)
Available as: HB, 322pp, PB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance reading copy
ISBN: 9781472274779 (HB), 9781472274816 (PB)

I'm grateful to Wildfire Books for an advance copy of Fortune Favours the Dead to consider for review.

If you're looking for your next detective series, and you want it to be smart, set in 1940s New York, to feature two women who'll take no nonsense from anyone and who are brilliantly realised and just, well, themselves - then this might be the book for you.

Fortune Favours the Dead introduces Lilian Pentecost, detective extraordinary and Willowjean Parker, her new protégé, lately of a travelling circus (where she picked up many useful skills including knife throwing, lock picking and escapology). Told in Will's voice, it ranges over three periods: the two women's first meeting late at night during the War, the notable case, a couple of years later, that is at the centre of the story, and a later perspective, the time from which Will is telling the story, allowing her to be somewhat self-critical, freighting the account with some hard-won knowledge about life, detective work and herself.

The setting Spotswood creates here is strong. Moving from the exciting world of the circus (Will acknowledges its drawbacks including both a gropy mentor and having to shovel out the tigers' cages) to Pentecost's HQ, a three storey townhouse with an archive, basement for combat practice, resident Scottish cook and a consulting room, taking in the world of the industrial elite and the clubs of queer New York where Will likes to spend her time, it has a great sense of place. The central mystery is fun - it involves both a locked room murder and a fashionable medium - but a Pentecost and Parker investigation will not allow itself to get distracted by flashy mechanics. The focus of the two women is very much on the "who" and the "why", with the "how" expected to follow so we don't get endless discussion of ingenious, but wrong, solutions to that puzzle. 

Pursuing that "who" and "why" is what leads Lilian and Will into moneyed society which - no surprise - proves to be afflicted with the same human problems as everyone else.

I really enjoyed seeing Ms Pentecost and Ms Parker set about their case here. They are very unlike physically - Lilian has MS, which tends to frustrate and then she suffers after pushing herself; Will is strong and somewhat overconfident - but Spotswood catches, or presents, the ways in which they spark off and complement each other, showing what dear friends they are without ever quite coming out and saying it. There's a vulnerability here, hinted at by others in the book, both women are outsiders in different ways and in New York the pendulum is swinging back again from a degree of tolerance required during the war to - something else. I felt both that Lilian's imposing headquarters was a refuge, ands that it was threatened. 

Overall, this book was great fun, showing how a humble "cirky girl" finds herself a new career, a home, even perhaps a family. The focus is on deepening relationships, rather than the details of crime, casting a bit of light on an era and place often seen through Hollywood and Broadway stereotypes. This will hopefully be the beginning of a fine series - I look forward to reading more!

For more details of Fortune Favours the Dead, see the publisher's website here.

17 December 2020

#Review - Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer

Cover art by Adam Rabulais,
design by Ryan Hayes
Secret Santa
Andrew Shaffer
Quirk Books, 10 November 2020
Available as: PB, 210pp, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683692058

I'm grateful to the publisher and in particular to Jamie and to Stephen for an advance copy of Secret Santa to consider for review.

In a fun, and seasonal, horror novel Shaffer peeks beneath the tinsel at a prestigious New Your publishing house to reveal the darkness within.

Lussi (pronounced, "Lucy") need to make a success of her new job at Blackwood-Patterson. Out of work for several months after her previous employer was swallowed up in a merger, when she gets a chance to pitch to the new boss at B-P for a job, she's not reticent ('all I do is shit best sellers'). But she's a genre editor - can she bring that success to a fusty literary publisher? And will her new colleagues let her try?

Given three weeks to try, it's time to raid the slush pile...

I love office based novels, and I love horror, so this was a perfect blend for me. I enjoyed seeing Lussi's attempts at fitting in and doing her job being frustrated by the stand-offishness at her new workplace, and then by a series of gruesome accidents. We've all that that moment (haven't we?) when we realise we weren't invited to a key meeting and wonder of it was on purpose. Or when we unintentionally press colleague's wrong button. Or HAVE OUR FOOD STOLEN FROM THE OFFICE FRIDGE. Shaffer deftly weaves such moments into a classic horror story, taking place, of course, close to Christmas. (Yes, I know it's Hallowe'en that is meant to be the season for horror but there's a reason for all those classic Christmas ghost stories...)

It's a book of contrasts - between friends and foes (but which is which?), the ordinary (mundane office life one moment, then a step into the spooky basement) and of course, in Lussi's increasingly desperate imagination, success and failure. Along the way, Shaffer has some fun with the publishing industry - I have a feeling some of the people described here may be closely based on real life. 

The story is very readable, and awash with a pleasing amount of mystery (who is being targeted, by what, and why - but even once you think you know the answers to these there are still secrets kept right to the end). Lussi is a smart and knowing protagonist - as a horror editor, she is well aware of this stuff, just not to meeting it in real life - but has to contend with a lot. It's not just the supernatural, there's the behaviour of her colleagues too, and indeed untangling the two is one of her most urgent problems, because even if she survives the monster, she's still got to rescue the company as well. Her new boss wants a bestseller and her wants it soon.

Overall a fun book which makes a nice counterpoint to the jollity of Christmas and strikes a good balance between out and out horror and office based humour. Secret Santa would make a good stocking filler for a horror fan, an office worker or anyone in publishing. (And because it's  all set in the 1980s, there is no home working, Zoom or social distancing).

For more information about Secret Santa see the Quirk website here.

15 December 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Gallowglass by S J Morden

Cover design by

S J Morden
Gollancz, 10 December 2020
Available as: PB, 373pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781473228542

I'm grateful to Gollancz for an advance copy of Gallowglass to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Gallowglass is a fascinating piece of writing.

I frequently find that a good place to begin in assembling my thoughts for a review is to think about the book's genre and its place within that genre. Sometimes there's not a lot to say, but sometimes this can really cast a light on the book. Gallowglass is a case in point. It's - obviously - science fiction (a book about chasing asteroids? Or course it is!) and it's obviously also got cli-fi overtones (the book is set a few decades hence when the effects of global warming are really biting, and Morden begins every chapter with a quote - a real quote - highlighting either the reality of climate change, or the squirming of denialists seeking to obfuscate the debate).


There is something else going on here, and when I worked it out I just cackled in delight.

Consider. Our hero Jaap van der Veerden (Jack to his few friends) is a scion of a fabulously wealth shipping family. He's sheltered and protected from the ravages of climate change, living in a fortified compound with high fences and ditches to keep out the indigent and HVAC to keep out the rising temperatures. But there's a price. Jack's parent want to live forever, and they may have the money to achieve that. And they want the same for their son. Jack, though, wants out of this cloistered existence. So he decides to run away - not a trivial thing to do given his parents' power and influence, but he has laid his plans well and has allies.

The sequence describing this escape is tautly written and never lets up. It also allows Morden to highlight some of the effects of climate change - the refugee camps and the constant threat of flooding, alongside the privileged life of the few. But it also leads into the heart of this book, as Jack, frustrated by his parents' long reach, falls in with a plan, both morally and legally dubious, to capture an asteroid and nudge it back towards Earth so that it can be mined for resources. It's a cut-throat, free-for-all business in which desperate recruits from growing nations are set against each other to do what's necessary in the darkness. Fantastic riches are on offer - riches that could save a nation or boost an individual into the ranks of the 1%, outclassing even Jack's parents.

With so much at stake, with so much desperation, anything is possible once a crew is out there on its own. Jack soon finds himself in fear not just for his future as a free man but for his very life. There is no margin in space for error, malice or miscommunication and he's on a ship with crew who mistrust this privileged young man from the outset. But the others have secrets and pasts too. Can they bond, learn to work together, "be Crew"? Can they, in short survive?

So, to return to my genre discussion above - welcome, readers, to Treasure Island for the 21st century.

In painstaking detail with enough hard science to convince that this might all work, Morden shows us how, with technology already nearly close, such an expedition might be mounted.

In painstaking detail with a heft of emotional truth to convince that this is how humans really would behave, Morden shows how what each member of the crew brings to that dark, far frontier, far from civilisation, will determine what part they play and whether the crew as a whole will survive.

It is a nuanced, intelligent study of human nature - Morden is NOT saying "look what happens when people throw off civilisation!" It is civilisation that has brought them to the edge of ruin (those chapter quotes keep reminding us) and this is emphatically not a crew descending into "savagery". Part of the cleverness of this book is the subtle picking out of motivations, often laudable, noble motivations which nevertheless lead to terrible actions - or rational individual decision that collectively lead to catastrophe. In that, of course, the whole story of anthropogenic climate change is encapsulated.

What is at stake here eventually proves to be enormous - even more than that fabulous wealth for an individual or a nation - and the deadly habitat of Asteroid KU2 becomes both an area for the best, and worst of human nature but for a kind of deadly game theory which Jack and his colleagues need to negotiate if they are going to salvage anything.

It's an absorbing story on so many levels. There's the detailed scientific base of the story, which pays appropriate respect to orbital dynamics, the problems of a low-G environment, the grim inevitability of Newton's Laws. There's the emotionally complex bonding (and fracturing) of the crew, a handful of humans in a deeply alien place. There's the moral dimension (or lack of). And there's that whole question of humanity and its ultimate fate, threatened by global heating and apparently unable to address that.

I loved this book for all this, and more. I would recommend it without reservation. Get it on your Christmas list now, or buy as a crafty present to yourself for the festive season. Don't miss this one.

For more information about Gallowglass, see the Gollancz website here.

You can buy Gallowglass from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For other angles on the book, see more reviews from the tour on the poster below.

14 December 2020

#BlogTour #Review - Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson (trans David Warriner, from the French ed)
Orenda Books, 21 January 2021 (PB)
Available as: e, PB, HB
Source e: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781913193447 (HB)

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me an advance copy of Winterkill, and to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Winterkill will be eagerly welcomed by Jónasson's many fans, returning, as it does, to Ari Thór, now promoted to Inspector in Siglufjörður, the most Northerly town in Iceland which we have seen previously in other volumes of the Dark Iceland sequence.

The book is pretty self-contained and if you're new to Ragnar Jónasson's writing it would be easy to start here but I'd advise reading the earlier books first - in publication order - to get the best experience. Ari Thór has been through a lot, and you'll understand him a little better if you have lived through it with him. Also, you know, spoilers.

That said, Winterkill does feel a bit like a coda to the series, offering a glimpse - a welcome glimpse - of Ari Thór's future. And how better to do that that though an enquiry into a mysterious death? Inner, a schoolgirl, apparently sneaked into an apartment block late on night, went up to the rooftop balcony, and threw herself off. 

Or did she? Was somebody else involved? A cryptic message in Unnur's diary, and an accusation scribbled on, of all places, a care home bedroom wall, arouse Ari Thór's suspicions. It's inconvenient, especially at Easter, when his estranged partner Kristín has brought their son Stefnir for a rare visit. Their presence gives Ari Thór mixed - and conflicted - feelings about throwing himself into a case, but it doesn't cause friction with Kristín (indeed, it's painful to see this, demonstrating how cool things have become between them). We know, don't we, that Ari Thór will do the right thing?

As he digs into what happened, a strange and sad story emerges. Ragnar Jónasson rather brilliantly brings to life the character of the dead girl - while we never actually "see" her in the book, and she seems to left very little trace in life, what isn't here, combined with the evidence of her family and few friends, actually paints a powerful and arresting portrait of Unnur. It's all the more moving for not being obvious, overblown, or dramatic and it really made me wonder about all those people one meets who may have stuff going on which you just never suspect or know about. That impression is heightened with Siglufjörður being a place where, as Ragnar Jónasson demonstrates, almost everyone knows almost everyone else, or might even be a third cousin. 

Can you keep secrets in a place like that? Apparently yes...

This is a very engaging book to read. Mystery and tragedy aside, Ari Thór's evolving relationship with Kristín and Stefnir is well conveyed and gives readers of the series some closure. And, murder and mystery aside, his relationship with his new protégé is rather amusing; Ari Thór sets out assuming that Ögmundur will respect and seek to emulate him just as he did with Tómas, but in fact Ögmundur seems an unambitious, incurious type who does the least he can and complains about being left to it when Ari Thór's not around! This crystallises a certain mood in the book. Ari Thór is torn between trying to revive or recreate the past (Kristín, Tómas) and pressing on into the future. Ari Thór once though he might have a chance of transferring to Reykjavik to work with Tómas again, but that seems off the agenda. Siglufjörður is developing, growing, finding new success in tourism, the place no longer being so cut-off as it used to be. Can Ari Thór adapt, or not?

Regardless, that modern infrastructure is still not proof against harsh Icelandic weather. The climax of the book comes in the dark when, just as the case seems to be resolving, a power cut descends on Siglufjörður leaving Ari Thór and Ögmundur stretched trying to cope with all the fallout from Unnur's death. It's a dramatic end to the book - and to the sequence - and one that captivates to the last page.

Finally, this edition is an English translation of the French edition. You might think that would distance the book somewhat from the mood and tone of the original. I don't know Icelandic (that would be wonderful!) so can't make that comparison but to me, David Warriner's English version captures both an atmosphere of darkness and the coming of change, Ari Thór's poised-ness between past and future among a fascinating community of people who are beautifully evoked. 

The e-book of Winterkill is available now - see the Orenda website for sources and for more information. You can preorder the paperback from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon (NB some links to PB, some to HB, depending what the various sites offered!)

The blogtour continues! 

For some more super reviews see the poster below. 

13 December 2020

#Review - Signal by Michael Walters

Cover photography
by Nicholas Royle
Design by

Michael Walters
Nightjar Press, October 2020
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781907341465

I'm grateful to Nightjar Press for a signed copy of Signal to consider for review, together with other short stories published alongside it. 

Signal is a haunting walk through a nighttime city by a lonely and anxious young woman. We meet Kate passing Meridian House on her way home from work. Kate likes to imagine friendships with the people she glimpses through the lit windows, but they're not there on this Saturday night, Christmas Eve Eve.

Kate is anxious: about money (she may have no shifts in the New Year), about her parents, who have unexpectedly turned religious. She's missing her sister (we will learn more about that). Walters deftly portrays Kate as a loner, an outsider, slightly ill at ease even in her shared house - and slipping out for a night walk as soon as she can.

What happens then - well, there are unexpected corners of every town, unexpected aspects in all of us. As Kate walks, pondering her life and her past, she feels somebody or something is reaching out for her. Sending her messages, perhaps? Signals? Her walk somehow transcends that inside-outside division, bringing her into the orbit of strange events, other peoples' stories.

The story is poised on the cusp between the everyday - that town in the desperate days before Christmas, the realties of work in the 21st century, a cheerless family situation - and the fantastical - the naked man waving from a window, the strange odyssey that Kate undertakes across town, the feeling that somebody is pulling strings. 

Perfectly captured, this book seems to bring us to a moment when - something - happens, or not. Then leaves us to speculate on just what, on what was real and what wasn't. It's a gorgeous story. The book itself is also attractively designed and the series overall one I'd strongly recommend. 

For more information about Signal and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.

9 December 2020

#Review - The Red Suitcase by Hilaire

Cover photography
by Nicholas Royle
Design by

The Red Suitcase
Nightjar Press, October 2020
Available as: PB, 19pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781907341472

I'm grateful to Nightjar Press for a signed copy of The Red Suitcase to consider for review, together with other short stories published alongside it. 

The Red Suitcase is a delightfully poised short story, exquisitely observed and so, so sharp. The book itself is also attractively designed the series overall  one I'd strongly recommend. 

Dougie and his mother make a little extra money by renting out a room in their cottage to summer visitors. They live in, literally, a dead-end town by the sea: bus once a week, railway closed years ago, there is a sense of entrapment in this story, of going nowhere. The relationship between Dougie - a grown man in, I think, middle age - and his mother seems over close, her fussing over his digestion, endlessly offering antacid pills and asking if he is "costive".

The arrival of B, the woman with that red suitcase, doesn't exactly disturb this relationship - that would be far too much a cliché, and too unlikely - but it does, perhaps, cast a light on it and give Dougie a few days in which things are not as usual. B is a strange visitor at a strange time of year - it is Winter, not Summer - and she seems to draw out a strangeness in Dougie, too. Her having arrived in his life, he studies and considers her. There's an air of mystery to her - why is she here, how did she find the place, what is she doing? - which isn't resolved, but a sense we aren't seeing the whole picture (perhaps because Dougie isn't exactly looking in the right places?)

Perfectly captured by the cover image, in which we don't whether we are observing or being observed from the lonely house at night, this is a book of mood and isolation, the nameless little town appearing almost as a world to itself which is infrequently visited and where nobody (even the "hardy young women" of Summer) ever stays. There are plenty of secrets here, in a story that may be short, but makes an impact.

For more information about The Red Suitcase and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.

6 December 2020

#Review - Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher

Design by Henry Steadman

Witch Bottle
Tom Fletcher
Jo Fletcher Books, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 310pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781848662605

I'm very grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Witch Bottle to consider for review.

Witch Bottle is an impressive book, a fusion of classic horror with a story of modern life and broken relationships which left me feeling deeply uneasy.

Daniel is a delivery worker. Every morning he wakes before dawn and bikes to the depot where he loads up his van under direction from the Bean, a wiry, enigmatic woman who runs a food wholesaler serving the scattered communities and businesses of western Cumbria. Daniel spends his day driving up and down the fells and along the coast, trying to keep on schedule, juggling his stock and battling with the weather, other van drivers and the vagaries of the customers. When it's going well, he feels like Postman Pat - though the money's not very good. When it's going badly... well, if you read the book you'll find out.

Daniel hasn't always worked like this, living in a house borrowed from an uncle and going nowhere in his career. He used to live in the town with a wife and a daughter: the moment he walked out on them is the opening of the book (occasional chapters give flashbacks to that life, gradually filling in the picture - a nightmare pregnancy for his wife Ellie and dark echoes beyond that to his own childhood). On that day Daniel sees the first hints of the dark and fantastical things that will haunt him on his deliveries, in his lonely cottage and, increasingly, in the relationships he's trying to build. There is something sinister going on out there, in the fields and on the roads. Fletcher matches it with hints of a darker, wider world too: a war that seems to be several notches worse than those we're aware of now, the descent of the health service into uncaring chaos, the repeated justification for a man bullying or abusing women that 'he's a real man, he's how men used to be'. 

Against this alarming background of war and the rumour of war, Daniel does find some warmth and love with Kathryn, who runs the La'al Tattie Shop. (Some of the chapters are seen from her point of view). Kathryn is also a witch and the matter-of-fact acceptance of this in the writing that - it's  presented as more a logistical than a supernatural problem - drives much of the story. Witches have businesses too and Kathryn needs to make her deliveries, but she's stuck in the shop all day and Daniel doesn't think the Bean would be pleased if he combined them with his rounds. That practical approach  is very much the mood of this book, presenting the fantastical and (increasingly) the horrific in a muted "what can you do?" way that is more and more unsettling - oddly it really brings the atmosphere of horror home to see it brought home (as it were).

As well as contributing to the eerie effect of the novel that normalisation also reflects the truth of what is going on here. Kathryn warns Daniel that the menacing hooded figure he sees outside his cottage has a connection to him - only by working out what it is might he be free of it. Her "witch bottle" is masking the symptoms, not providing a cure. So the book is - besides many other things - an exploration of Daniel's past, of his mistakes, even as he's trying to hold onto his job. Daily routines, work problems, bickering with colleagues and managing the van make up quite a bit of the story alongside some glorious evocations of the Cumbrian landscape (and allowing a bit of a respite from the growing darkness - tbough it's always threatening). Bt so do memories of Daniel's marriage, the despair at trying to get a difficult baby to sleep. And so do unsettlingly memories of his own childhood. All of this seems to be connected, somehow, as it is with the darkening state of the world. 

Overall a deeply moving, deeply troubling book - and one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Witch Bottle, see the publisher's website here.

3 December 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

The Fox
Sólveig Pálsdóttir (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, December 2020
Available as: PB, 293pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781916379732

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Fox to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour. This is the first tour I've done with them - and I hope the first of many! Corylus is a newly launched publishing house, a brave step to take in 2020 of all years, and I wish them all good things. 

The Fox introduces us to Guðgeir Fransson, a detective with the Reykjavík police who's under some sort of cloud, has been suspended and is waiting for a decision on the future of his career (and also, his marriage). Pálsdóttir only gives us hints of what happened professionally (a colleague and friend died, Guðgeir apparently made a mistake of some sort) and personally (there was an affair, he's estranged from his wife and has decamped to the backwater town of Höfn where he has taken a job as a security guard: the physical distance between him and Inga only seems to a be a barrier to resolving their problems). Guðgeir seems ambivalent about what he wants on either count.

While we shall, I hope, learn more about all this in future books, for now it's mainly background - but it does mean that Guðgeir is restless, poised between two futures and a past: unable to communicate with Inga, unable to commit to a new life and ripe for distraction. He's also a bit of an outsider in Höfn, with no inclination to take things at face value - and so inclined to take notice, when nobody else does, of a mystery on his doorstep.

A young woman, Sajee, originally from Sri Lanka, has been in the area but seems to have disappeared. The circumstances are, however, confused - Sajee arrived by plane from Reykjavík in the midst of a storm but has no connections in Höfn. She was heading for a job that doesn't exist. There is nobody to miss her. Everyone assumes she made her way... somewhere... but it's nobody's business to care whether she did or not. 

Guðgeir has no standing to investigate, and he has to fit his enquiries around his job. He is also hoping to make an Easter visit home. Nevertheless, he takes an interest. 

Pálsdóttir fully exploits the ambiguity of having part of the story follow Guðgeir and part Sajee, but being vague as to whether these strands are simultaneous and indeed, whether everything is being narrated in the order it happens. It would be spoilery to cast too much light on this - but I will say that we do, for much of the story, sort of know what has happened to Sajee, though not, quite, how things end up for her and therefore just how bad it will get. Pálsdóttir introduces a strange, reclusive mother and son - seen from Sagee's point of view - with a rather sinister backstory. It's clear early on that something is a bit off with them, but exactly what is masked by Sajee's unfamiliarity with Icelandic, culture and by tales of a "Hidden People" dwelling in the cliffs and caves. 

We see Sajee try to integrate these stories with both her own culture and the limited amount she knows about Iceland. As a stranger, she's genuinely unsure how much credence to give what she's being told, and so are we. This device - not so much an unreliable narrator as a misinformed one, perhaps - gives the story a real sense of unease and menace, a vacuum in which anything is possible and in which we might anticipate all kinds of bad outcomes. That pressure is kept up to the very end of the book. 

This is a story I sat up with well after midnight, I simply had to know what happened and how things would turn out. It is an impressive debut for Sólveig Pálsdóttir and, as ever, Quentin Bates' translation is lucid, unobtrusive and very readable - without over Anglicising concepts and language.

I will look forward to reading more about Guðgeir Fransson and his circle, assuming that mysterious enquiry absolves him for whatever happened - we will have to wait and see about that!

For more information about The Fox, see Coylus's webpage here, their Facebook or their Instagram. And follow the other entries on the blog tour - see the poster below. There will also be an interview between Dr Noir and Solveig Palsdottir on YouTube from the 10th of December, on the Newcastle Noir YouTube Channel here

You can buy the e-book from Kobo or Amazon. Paperback copies are available directly from the publisher (while stocks last!) - cost is £7.50 + £2.50 P&P for UK, and €8 + €4 P&P for anywhere in Europe, up to the end of December. Email: coryluseditor@gmail.com

1 December 2020

#Review - The Last Resort by Susi Holliday

The Last Resort
Susi Holliday
Thomas & Mercer, 1 December 2020
Available as: PB, 283pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN (PB): 9781542020015 

I'm grateful to the author for an advance copy of The Last Resort to consider for review. 

I  enjoyed Susi Holliday's recent psychological thrillers The Lingering and Violet so was very keen to see what she wrote next and The Last Resort didn't disappoint. It belongs to a very definite (and rather different) subgenre, the "last man standing" thriller where a disparate group are brought together in an environment they can't escape and challenged to survive. It's both a contemporary genre, and one with deep roots - think And Then There Were None, which The Last Resort has some affinity with, being set own an island with each character possessing one or more guilty secret. Indeed, the book affectionately tips its hat to Christie and - some way in - its protagonists, realising what genre they're in, comment knowing on what may be in store. 

I rather like this sort of self awareness (I'm avoiding the "meta" word) and it's only one of the many respects that, in this book, Holliday simply OWNS the format. From the setup - seven strangers on a plane, invited on a dream holiday, in reality off to who knows where - through the subsequent dangers, to the enigmatic last page, this is a book that demands attention. The group members themselves are satisfyingly portrayed - Amelia, a development worker, Tiggy, a social media "influencer", Giles, the games designer, gossip columnist Lucy, photographer James, Scott, who flogs dodgy dietary supplements and Brenda, the venture capitalist. While 283 pages isn't much to give a rounded description of this many people Holliday makes them distinctive and creates a real personality for each, avoiding them being stereotypes - it would be too easily simply to make everyone nasty, all the time, to set up the necessary conflict but that doesn't happen here. 

As the group progresses following the instructions of their enigmatic host, there are of course rifts between some, stoked by the mysterious revelations about their pasts and the fear of what is being done to them (are their minds being read? How closely are they being surveilled? Above all, why were they chosen?) but these arise organically from the characters as depicted, they aren't imposed. 

And there is a real mystery here. The reader too will wonder what, exactly, is going on. Obviously all are being manipulated, but why? What does it have to do with the interpolated story - set in 2000 - featuring two new characters? That's, of course, the puzzle which Amelia and the rest have to solve too, although they're not being given all the pieces we are and it creates a real sense of doubt for us as we follow their plight. I did work my way to the solution before the big reveal, but not that long before, and again, the key turns out to be motivations and character, so you need to watch everyone closely.

In all, The Last Resort (the title has to be ironic!) was great fun to read, with plenty of surprises and some real shocks. While it playfully hints at what's going on by its references to earlier examples of this genre, those should not all be taken at face value - things are tricksy here! 

For more information about The Last Resort and about the author's other books, see her website here. You can buy The Last Resort from Amazon here.