March 15

The Distance – Helen Giltrow

The Distance(1)They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison.

Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do.

The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there.

It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can’t she say no?

 

My most sincere thanks to Helen who sent me a copy of her book for review. As part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the paperback launch of The Distance, Helen kindly answered a few of my questions – you can see our conversation here: http://grabthisbook.net/?p=616

 

On the cover of The Distance is a quote from Lee Child which reads ‘Fast, hard and very, very good’ He is right – The Distance is all of those things.

Charlotte Alton (under the name Karla) trades in information. She knows people that can help her acquire information and she knows where the skeletons are buried (she also knows the guys who buried them).

Simon Johanssen is a hit man. He is to be smuggled into a secure facility compound (an experimental prison) and is tasked with killing one of the residents – assuming he can even find her.

The secure facility is known as The Program and is home to many extremely unsavoury characters; Johanssen has a struggle on his hands just to keep himself alive while he attempts to track down his target. However, problems arise when Johanssen finds that his intended victim is under protection of The Program’s ‘Kingpin’ figure – a man who believes Johanssen is dead and would be extremely unhappy to find that Johanssen is still very much alive.

Charlotte is responsible for co-ordinating Johanssen’s mission. She needs to find a way to get him inside The Program and ensure that his cover story is watertight. As the plot unfolds we see the extent of Charlotte’s network of informants and operatives and a cracking story (which began as a thriller) begins to morph into a deliciously suspenseful spy novel.

I loved Charlotte’s character, she was pitched perfectly and the balance between her life as Charlotte and that of her alter-ego Karla is fascinating reading. Powerful yet vulnerable – the opening chapter makes it clear that there are dark times in Charlotte’s near future.

With two key characters to follow (and a necessity to cover some historic events that outline how the players in the story bring substantial ‘baggage’ to their current predicament) there is a lot to keep track of. The ‘fast’ element of The Distance (for me) was the way that Helen Giltrow was able to switch the reading focus between past and present, Charlotte and Johanssen or events inside and outside of The Program.

The ‘hard’ element of The Distance should probably be expected if you have a facility full of dangerous criminals who are left to form their own community and who play by their own rules. At this stage the character of Bryce needs to be mentioned. Brice is the right-hand man of the aforementioned ‘Kingpin.’ He seems to delight in keeping his victims alive and slowly wearing them down by hurting them and then hurting them some more. Brice is not nice – but he is compelling reading.

I am finishing my thoughts on The Distance with the ‘very, very good’ part of Mr Child’s review – Yes. Definitely. Go read it.

 

The Distance by Helen Giltrow is published by Orion and is available now in paperback and in digital format.

 

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February 26

Guest Interview – James Goss (Haterz)

Today I am delighted to welcome James Goss who has kindly taken time to answer a few of my questions about his new novel, Haterz.

James also has a long-standing association with the world of Doctor Who – as a lifelong fan of that particular show I sneaked in a few questions about everyone’s favourite Timelord.

Haterz is a dark comic tale which sees the central character killing off people who annoy him when he is online – I opened with the obvious question…

HaterzWould it be a fair for Haterz readers to assume that James Goss has become a little bit irritated by some elements of social media?

I’m a freelancer who works from home, so I’m obviously addicted to social media. It’s the ultimate work avoidance tool. If people aren’t uploading pictures of their breakfasts or a holiday sunset then I want to know what’s wrong with the world. That said, there are some elements of it that bring out the worst in people. For instance, a friend of mine is wonderful, charming, self-deprecating company in real life, but unbearable on Facebook. I would hide them, but I’m enjoying the ride. And that makes me a terrible person.

In Haterz when we meet Dave, he is just about to kill his best friend’s girlfriend because he finds her annoying on Facebook. Have you had to reassure your friends that they are not in any way featured in Haterz?

On the contrary, actually. In the couple of cases where I’ve used people I know, I’ve emailed them to ask how I would kill them. And they’ve been very creative.

Despite the fact he is killing people in nasty ways I found the character of Dave to be quite a likeable fellow. Do you think you will split the crowd on this one (with some readers condoning his actions and others willing him to succeed)? Or do intend for us all to empathize with Dave?

It’s terribly fashionable to issue death threats on Twitter. I just wondered who would be the kind of person who actually carried them out – and Dave’s not some ranting people-hating moron. He’s not a slick, smooth American psychopath – he’s a terribly British bumbler. Poor old Dave just wants everyone to be nice to each other. And is going to carry on killing until they are. I think, once you can get past that contradiction then he’s perfectly pleasant company. You could go out for a drink with him. So long as you don’t post too many pictures of your cocktail.

I am keen to avoid plot spoilers, however, I did enjoy some of the people and groups that Dave targeted his attentions towards.  When you were planning out Haterz did you have a ‘hit-list’ of groups you specifically wanted to target?

Absolutely. All the groups, types and institutions were planned in advance. I toned a few of them down. Oddly, in the nearly two years between planning and publication, none of the groups have changed that much. Amazingly, woman-hating video gamers have got even nastier. Well done on that one, humanity.

As we all seem to be becoming increasingly fixated on social media do you think we have reached a point where more serious repercussions are needed to curb the worst instances of online behaviour?

It’s all such a muddle, like humanity is trying to work out where we go next. We may look back on GamerGate as the first online world war – not between countries but between violently passionate interest groups. A glance at Twitter tells you the consensus is “We want freedom of speech. Just not for them, them, and you can shut up”. We live in a world that is almost inexplicable to people from a decade ago, when we were all charmed by “Eric Emotes An Emotion”. I don’t know how long it will be before we reach Peak Oversharing. Possibly when all those babies whose every bowel-movement has been reported on become old enough to have Facebook accounts, log on and go “oh dear god.”
We live in a world where what’s really frightening is not that the terrorists are on social media, but how they’re making the same stupid mistakes the rest of us do.

Having now laid out our worst online offences have you had to modify your own online behaviour?

I think we’re all guilty of some pretty awful offences. Too many cat pictures. Enigmatic tweeting about how marvellous your life is. The terrible thing about being an author online is that there’s this pressure to constantly bang on about stuff you’ve written. No-one was gladder than me to find out from a social media expert that constantly being “Brand You” is really off-putting. I find the whole thing deeply embarrassing. I couldn’t convincingly sell you a new pair of socks, let alone a book, so I’m deeply relieved that the publicity team behind Haterz are really good. Because, no matter how proud I am of something I’ve worked on, I can’t enthuse about it on social media without sounding like a vicar trying to sound cool.

Dead of WinterSwitching track slightly, I also wanted to ask about your ongoing involvement with the world of Doctor Who. I have been a fan of the show since childhood and I am delighted to see it flourishing. You seem to have been involved with the programme for several years in a number of different roles, what have been the stand-out moments for you?

I still can’t believe that Doctor Who is back and so loved. When I first ran the BBC’s website (during the end of the show’s wilderness years and the first two series of the triumphant relaunch), the disinterest the BBC felt towards Doctor Who was pretty bad. Ever year the site’s budget got cut and the online audience only grew larger. It was a strange time – trying to do so much with such tiny resources against such vast corporate indifference. I’ll never forget a meeting with my head of department where she sighed and said “Well, Doctor Who, there’s only about another 18 months in it.” Then Russell brought it back and the whole thing snowballed. It was truly amazing to be involved in that. But also rather unbelievable. Genuinely. But suddenly the BBC fell head over heels in love with Doctor Who again. And rightly so.

Oh yes. And getting to stand on the TARDIS set and realising that a large amount of it was from IKEA. Which instantly validated most of my home furnishing choices.

The Blood Cell
The Blood Cell

Last year you wrote the Doctor Who novel The Blood Cell (which I reviewed and enjoyed immensely)It was one of the first novels published which featured Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.I believe that you had to write the story before the first Capaldi episode, Deep Breath, was broadcast – how do you write for such an iconic character when you do not know how he will appear on screen?

Very carefully. We were lucky in that we had access to the early scripts and they were phenomenally clear about what a different character this Doctor was going to be. I cheated and wrote my book from the villain’s point-of-view, so if I had got it wrong, I could just claim the narrator was lying.

My extensive research (Wikipedia) reveals that you and I were born in the same year. I have been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I can remember I do recall seeing seeing K-9 yet my earliest clear memory of the show is of the Melkur from Keeper of Traken.  Can you pin down your first Who memory?

Curiously enough, City Of Death. There didn’t seem to be anything else on when I was a child. I was so lucky. I don’t think I really got what the show was, though. I remember watching an episode that, amazingly, wasn’t City Of Death. Doctor Who climbed up a tower, fell off, and turned into the young vet from All Creatures Great And Small. I was very confused.

You have worked with Big Finish and produced a number of audio plays. Do you prefer the solitude and personal achievement of writing or is the collaboration and assembling the cast and crew to make an audio drama a bigger challenge?

I love getting off the sofa and meeting people. I’m very bad at it these days, but I try my best. It’s really lovely that Big Finish have let me do some really wonderful projects. They’re a really great company to work for. Some of the most surprising emails of my life have come from them. Would I like to write a musical? Would I like to write for Servalan? Can you produce an audio series with an actress you helplessly admire?

Some unexpected items included in the 100 objects.
Some unexpected items included in the 100 objects.

One of your other projects was the non fiction Doctor Who book A History of the Universe in 100 Objects. I was constantly amused by the items you singled out for discussion but it all seemed to work perfectly – was there a method to the selection process or did you and (co-author) Steve Tribe just have fun picking unusual items?

We went to the pub. I hate it when people use that as an answer. It makes it sound so lazy. But my local does really nice coffee (for me) and very nice draught beer (for Steve), and then we sat down and we did that thing that Doctor Who fans love to do. We drew up a list.

Some things were written but didn’t make the final cut. There was a whole section on Dalek Plans, written by Penny, their long-suffering Project Manager. God, I loved that. Probably best it was left out, but occasionally, on nights out, Chris Allen, the current Doctor Who website editor, will perform bits of it aloud. It mostly comes down to Penny saying “And you haven’t left in a big red destruct button this time have you?” and the Dalek Supreme going “Er…”. I AM LAUGHING NOW. WHY ARE YOU NOT LAUGHING?

On a final note, are you able to share what you will be working on next?

I’m making the revisions to the novelisation of Douglas Adams’s City Of Death, which is a very odd, wonderful project to have done. Yes, in an ideal world Douglas himself would have written it. Or Gareth Roberts, but he got abducted to write A Top Secret Television Project, so it landed with me. I live in a world where, just this once, I’m third choice for something after Douglas Adams. That’s not a bad place to be.

Mind you, I’ve spent the last few months trying not to be run over by a bus (probably driven by whoever offed Danny Pink). Funnily enough, on the day before I finished the first draft, I nearly choked to death on a new potato. I was so horrifically aware of the irony I was giggling at the same time I was choking. Yes. I very nearly died laughing.

 

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February 24

Prayer For The Dead – James Oswald

prayer for the dead 2The fifth novel in the bestselling Inspector McLean series by Sunday Times bestselling author James Oswald.

‘Are you ready to be reborn?’

The search for a missing journalist is called off as a body is found at the scene of a carefully staged murder.

In a sealed chamber, deep in the heart of Gilmerton Cove, a mysterious network of caves and passages sprawling beneath Edinburgh, the victim has undergone a macabre ritual of purification.

Inspector Tony McLean knew the dead man, and can’t shake off the suspicion that there is far more to this case than meets the eye. The baffling lack of forensics at the crime scene seems impossible. But it is not the only thing about this case that McLean will find beyond belief.

Teamed with the most unlikely and unwelcome of allies, he must track down a killer driven by the darkest compulsions, who will answer only to a higher power…

‘Are you ready for the mysteries to be revealed?’

My thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph and Netgalley for my review copy

 

Jump back 11 months to 24th March 2014 when, after a bit of hesitation, I bit the bullet and posted my first review on my blog. I had been toying with the idea of blogging for some time so decided to write a review of the book I had finished earlier that day – it had been a great story from an author I’d not read before. Natural Causes by James Oswald.

7 months later, it’s October 2014. I am officially a ‘fan’ of Mr Oswald’s Tony McLean series and I am sat in Coatbridge Library where, as part of the North Lanarkshire Encounters series, James Oswald is visiting to discuss his books. The evening opened with a reading from the opening chapter of Prayer For The Dead – a debut read as the final edit had only just been confirmed. It was a treat and a pleasure to hear an extract from an unpublished novel and just 4 months later I finally found out what followed! Added bonus from that night was that James Oswald was fabulous and had us hanging on his every word for well over an hour of uninterrupted anecdotes and readings.

But to the book…

Prayer for the Dead is the 5th outing for Tony McLean and this is another stellar read in a series that has maintained a high standard of entertainment and thrills throughout all the books.

I am always pleased to revisit recurring characters in the books I read and I very much enjoy the team that assemble alongside McLean. Grumpy Bob returns as does Jane Macintyre, Stuart MacBride and even Madam Rose is back. The relationships between the characters is a key element to my enjoyment and there is a genuine feel of a ‘team among the police characters. McLean is supportive of MacBride, tolerant of Grumpy Bob and collectively they grumble over the senior officers who frequently appear to be inept.

More unusual is the ongoing relationship between Madam Rose and Mclean, particularly given how events unfold during Prayer For The Dead. Their friendship is taken in a very unexpected direction and we get to see Rose in a very different light – another nice touch.

The most important element of a crime thriller is that there is an engaging crime to be solved. Very much so I am pleased to report. A few unnatural deaths have occurred around Edinburgh, there does not appear to be any obvious connection yet the cruel manner of the deaths and the short intervals between the murders leads McLean to believe they are the work of one individual.

With no clues to pursue the police are very much in the dark as to how they may track down the culprit (assuming they ARE just looking for one person). With no meaningful progress being made, McLean finds himself distracted by other cases: particularly when the property developers who are trying to get him to sell his home turn up dead and their connection to McLean is investigated by London’s Serious Crime team.

I very much enjoyed Prayer For The Dead, it is a cracking murder mystery with some nasty deaths to squirm over and a sinister murderer who keeps several steps ahead of McLean et al. Fans of James Oswald will not be disappointed with the latest novel…except when it ends and you realise that the next book is ages away!

 

Prayer For The Dead is available now from Penguin/Michael Joseph and is in all good bookshops, online and in many a supermarket too.

On a final note – I am constantly amused that there is a character called Stuart MacBride in James Oswald’s books. This amusement increased tenfold when I read the apology that Mr Oswald offered to the real Mr MacBride in the author notes at the end of the book. Perhaps I am just easily amused?

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February 18

Winter Siege – Ariana Franklin – Extract from Chapter One

winter siege 2As part of the Winter Siege Blog Tour I am delighted to be able to share an extract from the book with you, and what better place to start than the opening chapter?

 

Chapter One
The Cambridgeshire Fens, February 1141

At first, news of the war going on outside passed into the fenland without impact. It oozed into that secret world as if filtered through the green miasma of willow and alder that the fenlanders called ‘carr’, which lined its interminable rivers and reed beds.

At Scutney, they learned about it from Old Sala when he came back from his usual boat trip to Cambridge market where he sold rushes for thatching. He told the tale in the village church after the celebration of Candlemas.

‘Now yere’s King Stephen—’ he began.

‘Who?’ somebody asked.

Sala sighed with the exasperation of a much-travelled man for the village idiot. ‘I told you an’ told you, bor. Ain’t Henry on the throne now, it’s Stephen. Old Henry’s dead and gone these many a year.’

‘He never told me.’

‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he? Him bein’ a king and dead.’

As always, the little wooden church smelled of cooking from the rush tapers that had been dipped in fat. Scutney couldn’t afford beeswax candles; anyway, rushes gave out a prettier light.

‘Get on with it, will ’ee?’ Brother Arth struggled out of the rough woollen cope he wore to take the services and into the sheepskin cloak that was his working wear in winter. ‘I got ditchin’ and molin’ to see to.’

They all had, but the villagers stayed where they were – it was as well to be informed about what was going on in them uplands. Sala stretched back his shoulders and addressed his audience again. ‘So this King Stephen’s started a-warring with his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Remember as I told you old King Henry, on his deathbed, wanted his daughter, this Matilda, to rule England? But the nobles, they don’t want no blasted female queenin’ it over un, so they’ve said no and gives the crown to Stephen, old Henry’s nephew.’

He looked sternly into the standing congregation. ‘Got that now, Bert, have you? Good. Well now, Matilda, she ain’t best pleased with bein’ passed over and seems she’s brought a army as is a-fighting Stephen’s army out there some’eres.’

‘That it?’ Nyles wanted to know.

‘Enough, innit?’ Sala was miffed that Nyles, the big man of the village because he owned more sheep than anybody else, hadn’t been more receptive to the news. ‘I been tellin’ you as there’s a war goin’ on out there.’

Nyles shrugged. ‘Allus is.’

‘Excitin’, though, Pa, ain’t it?’ asked eleven-year-old Em, looking up at him. Nyles cuffed his daughter lightly about her red head for her forwardness in speaking in church. She was his favourite, but it didn’t do to let females get out of hand, especially not this one. ‘Well, good luck to ’em, I say. And now let’s get on with that ditchin’ and bloody molin’.’

But Old Sala, irritated by the interruption, raised his hand. ‘I’ll tell you summat else, Nyles. And you’ll want to listen this time. Want to be keeping a close eye on that one, you will,’ he said, pointing at Em. ‘Folk say as there’s a band o’ mercenaries riding round ’ere like the wild hunt and with ’em there’s a monk; likes red-heads, he does.

Does terrible things when ’e finds ’em too.’ Nyles shook his head indulgently and turned towards
the door. He knew Old Sala with his scaremongering and preposterous tales of abroad and yet he suddenly felt in – explicably chilly and, without realizing it, had reached out and drawn the child closer to him. Daft old bugger.

‘That it then, Sala?’ he asked. The old man looked deflated but nodded and with that the men, women and children of Scutney trooped out of its church to continue their own, unceasing war – against water.

The North Sea, that great enemy, was always threatening to drown East Anglia in one of its rages, submerging fields and cattle, even lapping the just-above-sea-level islands that dotted the flattest land in England. In winter, the sluggish rivers and great drains had to be cleared of weed or they clogged and overflowed.

Oh, and the mole, as big an enemy as the sea, had to be killed to stop the little bugger from weakening the dykes with his bloody tunnels.

No, the people of Scutney didn’t have time from their watery business to bother about wars between the danged nobles. Anyway, they were safe because just over there – over there, bor, see them towers in the distance? – was Ely, greatest cathedral in England.

Every year, the villagers had to deliver four thousand glistening, squirming eels to Ely in return for being protected by St Etheldreda, whose bones lay in a jewelled tomb within the cathedral walls.
Powerful saint, Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon like themselves, and although Scutney people resented the number of eels they had to catch in order to feed her monks, they were grateful to her for keeping them safe from the outside world with its battles and carryings-on.

Oh yes, any bugger who came a-trampling and a-killing in this part of the fens ’d soon have his arse kicked out of it by good old St Ethel. That’s if the bugger could find Scutney in the first place and didn’t drown in the meres or get led astray by spirits of the dead who took the shape of flickering Jack-o’- Lantern flames in the marshes by night.

Folk allus said that for an enemy force to attack Ely it’d take a traitor to show the secret causeways leading to it. And who’d be so dang-blasted stupid as to betray St Etheldreda? Get sent straight to Hell, he would. Such was the attitude.

But a traitor was even now preparing his treachery, and the war was about to penetrate Scutney’s fenland for all that St Etheldreda in her 500-year-old grave could do about it.

The first the village knew of its fate was when soldiers sent by Hugh Bigod turned up to take its men away to build him a new castle.

‘Bigod?’ roared Nyles, struggling between two captors while his red-headed elder daughter batted at their legs with a frying pan. ‘We don’t owe him nothing. We’re Ely’s men.’

Hugh Bigod, newly Earl of Norfolk, owned a large proportion of East Anglia. The Scutney villagers had seen him in his fine clothes swanking it at Ely with their bishop during Christmas feasts and suchlike. Didn’t like him much. But then, they didn’t like anybody from Norfolk. Didn’t like the next village across the marshes, come to that.

Nor was he their overlord, as was being energetically pointed out to his soldiers. ‘Tha’s not law, bor. We ain’t none of his. What’s he want another castle for? He’ve got plenty.’

‘And now he do want another one,’ the soldiers’ sergeant said, ‘in case Empress Matilda do attack un. There’s a war on, bor.’

‘Ain’t my war,’ Nyles told him, still struggling.

‘Is now,’ the sergeant said, ‘and if them nippers of yourn don’t cease bashing my legs, they’ll be its next bloody casualties.’

For Em had now been joined by her younger sister, Gyltha, wielding an iron spit.

‘Leave it,’ Nyles told his girls. But they wouldn’t, and their mother had to drag them off. Holding them tightly, Aenfled watched her husband and every other able-bodied man being marched off along the roddon that led eventually to Cambridge.

‘Us’ll be back, girl,’ Nyles shouted at her over his shoulder, ‘but get they sheep folded, an’ don’t ’ee sell our hay for a penny under thruppence a stook, an’ look to that danged roof afore winter’s out, and . . .’ He had suddenly remembered Old Sala’s warning in the church. ‘Keep Em close . . .’ And then he was too far away to be heard.

The women of Scutney stood where they were, their men’s instructions becoming fainter and fainter until only an echo came sighing back to them and even that faded so that the air held merely the frightened bawling of their babies and the call of geese flying overhead.

They didn’t cry; fenwomen never wept.

The men still hadn’t come back by the beginning of Lent.

It was a hard winter, that one. Birds dropped out of the air, killed by the cold. The rivers froze and dead fish could be seen enclosed in their ice. The old died in their huts; the sheep in their pens.

In the turbaries, spades dulled themselves on peat that had become as hard as iron, so that fuel became scarce and it was necessary for tired, overworked women and their families to venture further and further away from the village in order to retrieve the peat bricks that had been stacked a year before to provide fire for shepherds during the lambing season.

On St Valentine’s Day, it was the turn of Aenfled and her children to trundle a barrow into the marsh to fetch fuel. They’d left nothing behind in the woolly line and the thickness of their wrappings made them look like disparately sized grey statues perambulating through a grey landscape. Their breath soaked into the scarves round their mouths and turned to ice, but a veil of mist in the air promised that the weather might, just might, be on the turn. The children all carried bows and arrows in case a duck or goose flew within range.

Tucked into Em’s belt was a little carved wooden key that Durwyn, Brother Arth’s son, had shyly and secretly shoved into her hand that morning. Gyltha wouldn’t leave the subject alone. ‘Wants to
unlock your heart, he do. You got to wed un now.’

‘Sod that,’ Em said. ‘I ain’t never getting married and certainly not to a saphead like Durwyn. Anyways, I ain’t old enough an’ he ain’t rich enough.’

‘You kept his old key, though.’

‘Tha’ll be on the fire tonight,’ Em promised her. ‘Keep us warm.’

They stopped; they’d felt the drumming of hoofbeats through their boots. Horsemen were cantering along the causeway behind them.

‘Get into they bloody reeds,’ hissed Aenfled. She pushed her barrow over the causeway’s edge and tumbled her children after it.

Horses were rare in the fenland, and those travelling at speed suggested their riders were up to no good. Maybe these were friendly, maybe not, but lately there’d been nasty rumours of villages sacked by demons, women raped – sometimes even murdered – and grain stores burned. Aenfled was taking no chances.

There was just time to squirm through the reeds to where the thick, bare fronds of a willow gave them some cover.

Her hand clasped firmly over the mouth of her younger daughter, not yet old enough to be silenced with a look, Aenfled prayed: Sweet Mary, let un go past, go past.

Go past, go past, urged Em, make un go past. Through the lattice of reeds above her head, she saw flicks of earth being thrown up as the leading horses went by. She bowed her head in gratitude. Thank ’ee, St Ethel, thank ’ee, I’ll never be wicked no more.

But one of the middle riders pulled up. ‘Swear as I saw something dive into that bloody ditch.’
‘Deer?’ One of the leaders stopped abruptly and turned his horse back. As he approached the wind picked up,lifting his robes and revealing the animal’s flanks, which were lathered white with sweat and dripping blood from a set of vicious-looking spurs.

Keeping still as still, Em smelled the stink of the men above her: sweat, dirt, horses, blood and a strange, pungent odour that was foreign to her.

‘Could ’a’ been.’

‘Flush the bastard out then. What are you waiting for?’

Spears began thudding into the ditch. One of the men dismounted and started scrambling down, hallooing as he went.

Em knew they were done for. Then her mouth set itself into the thin, determined line that her sorely tried mother would have recognized and dreaded. No we ain’t. Not if I lead ’em away. She pushed her sister’s head more firmly into the ground and leaped for the bank. A willow twig twitched the cap from her head as she went, releasing the flame-red curls it hid beneath but, although she paused briefly, she didn’t stop for it. Now she was running.

Aenfled kept Gyltha clutched to her, her moans and prayers covered by the whoops of the men. She heard the one who’d come into the ditch climb back out of it and join the hunt. She heard hoofbeats start up again. She heard male laughter growing fainter as the riders chased their prey further and further into the marsh. She heard the far-away screams as they caught Em, and knew her daughter was fighting. She heard the horses ride off with her.

Birds of the marsh that had flown up in alarm settled back into their reed beds and resumed their silence.

In the ditch Aenfled stopped praying.

Except for her daughter’s soul, she never prayed again.

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February 10

Holy Cow – David Duchovny

Holy CowElsie Bovary is a cow and a pretty happy one at that. Until one night, Elsie sneaks out of the pasture and finds herself drawn to the farmhouse. Through the window, she sees the farmer’s family gathered around a bright Box God – and what the Box God reveals about something called an ‘industrial meat farm’ shakes Elsie’s understanding of her world to its core.

The only solution? To escape to a better, safer world. And so a motley crew is formed: Elsie; Shalom, a grumpy pig who’s recently converted to Judaism; and Tom, a suave turkey who can’t fly, but can work an iPhone with his beak. Toting stolen passports and slapdash human disguises, they head for the airport …

Elsie is a wise-cracking, slyly witty narrator; Tom dispenses psychiatric advice in a fake German accent; and Shalom ends up unexpectedly uniting Israelis and Palestinians. David Duchovny’s charismatic creatures point the way toward a mutual understanding and acceptance the world desperately needs.

Thanks to Elizabeth Masters at Headline for my review copy – a Bookbridgr request.

 

Read the book description above? Thinking ‘That sounds bonkers’? You are pretty much there. This is not in any way a book to take seriously (obviously), nor is it going to take you long to work your way through. But what you will get is an entertaining and (probably) unique comedy adventure.

David Duchovny treats us to some wonderful one-liners, comedy set pieces and some astute observations on modern day life – all seen through the eyes of a cow, pig and turkey.

The book is short and the review will need to be too – seek this out if you like your comedy to be zany, offbeat and downright bizarre. I can see this being an ideal book to give to a friend or loved one as a gift as it looks distinctive and fun. However, if you DID decide to gift this book, treat yourself and read it first!

 

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February 3

Beyond The Rage – Michael J Malone

Beyond The RageEven though he’s a successful criminal, Glasgow villain Kenny O’Neill is angry. Not only has his high-class escort girlfriend just been attacked, but his father is reaching out to him from the past despite abandoning Kenny as a child after his mother’s suicide. Kenny is now on a dual mission to hunt down his girl’s attacker and find out the truth about his father… but instead he unravels disturbing family secrets and finds that revenge is not always sweet.

An intelligent, violent thriller shot through with dark humour, Beyond the Rage enthralls and disturbs in equal measure. With an intricate plot, all-too-believable characters and perfectly pitched dialogue, this is a masterclass in psychological crime fiction writing.

 

Thanks to Michael for giving me the chance to read his book (and for signing it too).

Some books are hard work to grind through: they are too self-indulgent or have lots of random characters that bog down the plot. Then there are the books which I put down and cannot even recall the lead character’s name – bland and unremarkable. However, there are also the diamonds – the books that are a joy to read. These are slick, they are entertaining and have a captivating story. I am happy to report that Beyond The Rage falls very much into the latter category, I was swallowed up in a great story while a web of lies, deception and danger was spun around me.

Despite being a successful criminal and dangerous bad guy our protagonist, Kenny O’Neill, generally comes across as a nice guy. He is an engaging character and his dubious occupation is easily overlooked as we empathise with the situations he finds himself in. As the story begins we dip back into the past to learn about Kenny’s parents, we hear that his mother died when he was just 12 and (almost immediately afterwards) his father walked out to leave Kenny in the care of his aunt and uncle.

Jump forward to present day and Kenny is a successful player in the Glasgow criminal sub-culture. So when someone attacks his girlfriend Kenny takes it very personally and sets out to uncover who may be responsible and vows to make them pay. His investigations bring him into contact with gangsters, politicians, thugs, the police and a fair few prostitutes yet Kenny takes it all in his stride.

Meanwhile Kenny’s aunt has some news regarding his long-lost father. She has been holding onto a letter that arrived on Kenny’s 18th birthday, could it be possible that his father was still around? Kenny is not sure yet, despite all the time that has passed, he decides he wants to find out more about his absent parent. Ignoring warnings about raking up the past, Kenny enlists the help of his best friend Detective Inspector Ray McBain to learn more about his father. (McBain is the star of two of Malone’s previous books and it is great to see him making a couple of cameo appearances).

Beyond The Rage puts Kenny through emotional and physical turmoil. He finds himself pitted against the adversarial Mason Budge. Budge is responsible for attacking Kenny’s girlfriend and clearly he enjoyed the experience as he is stalking her keen to get the chance to repeat the experience. Budge is a constant threat to Kenny (even if Kenny is not always aware of it) yet we know that Budge is acting under orders and Malone deftly keeps the real reasons that Kenny is being targeted just out of our reach.

The finale provided a few unexpected shocks and, with hand on heart, I can confess I was totally wrong in most of my assumptions as to where the story was heading. Beyond The Rage is a brilliant read…the characters are well realised, expertly utilised and the story is gripping. I have no qualms over scoring it 5/5, it’s an absolute gem.

 

Beyond The Rage is available now from Saraband books. Follow Michael J Malone on Twitter @michaelJmalone1

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January 31

Alf The Workshop Dog- Emma Calin

Once upon a now bannerThe wisdom of the fable through the eyes of modern children. A series of books following traditional pathways of storytelling towards issues and solutions of our times.

Emma Calin has worked with the Philippines based talented anime/manga artist Miko Abellera,
to create this collection of illustrated chapter-book stories for 6-12 year olds.

Emma Calin
Each book features interactive bonus links, via URLs for digital readers (e.g. Kindle, iPad) or by scannable QR codes for paperback readers. The links lead to free downloads of pictures for colouring, as well as photos and video and audio clips to enrich the story and bring the characters to life.

Alf The Workshop Dog

How could a scruffy dog in a bus depot and the call of crows, link back to another world of power and love?
The ancient Kingdom of Zanubia and a stray dog looking for scraps in an inner-city repair garage, hold the secret. A wicked king, a beautiful girl, a young prince and the struggle between right and wrong maintain the fable tradition.

ISBN: 1502479583 Kindle ASIN:B00NWQ96PE Audio book ASIN:B00OBT8RDI GENRE: Children’s Fiction

 

Isabella’s Pink Bicycle

There’s something strange in the woodshed…
A poor little girl in a faraway land dreams of riding a pink bicycle. When she meets a strange animal, her dreams come true. Her happiness turns to sadness when a tragedy occurs in the town and her father doesn’t come home. Maybe her new magic friend can find him?

ISBN: 150323407X Kindle ASIN: B00OFQO0WY Audio book ASIN:B00P1O1XLK GENRE: Children’s Fiction

 

Kool Kid Kruncha and The High Trapeze

Charlie finds it tough when his parents divorce – but Auntie Kate helps him overcome his greatest fear.
When Charlie has to move from the country into the city, he needs new friends. With his small size and red hair, some people aren’t kind to him.
He wonders if he can face another day at school. A trip to the circus gives him the strength to see himself and others in a new way.

ISBN:1503267105 Kindle ASIN: B00OFSNQL8 Audio book ASIN: B00PX8V76K GENRE: Children’s Fiction

 

Alf The Workplace DogThanks to CandleLit for my review copy of Alf The Workshop Dog. I enlisted the help of my 8 year old son to give a parent and child overview of the story.

From a Dad’s viewpoint Alf the Workshop Dog was a great reading experience with my son. The story caught his imagination and the promise of the interactive elements to the book were a great incentive for him to try to prolong his bedtime story each night.

The integration of story and additional content through digital media is a great idea and worked well as a hook to get my son reading a story that he may not normally have considered.

 

My son is keen to muscle in on my blog so I asked him to provide me with his own review of Alf The Workshop Dog. After much consideration we established the following:

“It was great fun to read about Zanubia but I did not like the King very much. I like when I can go to You Tube and watch the videos and things at the end of some of the chapters. My favourite was when we sang the national anthem.”  To interject at this stage – we sang the anthem FREQUENTLY.

Back to the boy: “I liked to read on my Kindle for a change as normally my books are paper or comics” (keeping him off the other apps was a challenge). “The story was good and I read loads when you were at work as I didn’t want to wait for bedtime” (always love when he reads so I cannot complain too much that he was reading ahead). ” I didn’t like the King but I liked how the story ended, it made me feel happy” (at this stage I hear echoes of his teacher trying to explain to me at Parent’s Night how they will tackle Book Reviews for 8/9 year olds – How the story made me feel was right up there)

A hit in our household – Alf The Workshop Dog was read over a few nights and has been revisited already, especially the video of the Zanubian National Anthem. Lots of fun and a nice way to round off the day for us both.

 

December 28

The Chase – Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Internationally renowned thief and con artist Nicolas Fox is famous for running elaborate and daring scams. His greatest

The Chase
The Chase

con of all: convincing the FBI to team him up with the only person who has ever caught him, Special Agent Kate O’Hare. Together they’ll go undercover to swindle and catch the world’s most wanted – and untouchable – criminals.

Their newest target is Carter Grove, a former White House chief of staff and the ruthless leader of a private security agency. Grove has stolen a rare Chinese artefact from the Smithsonian, a crime that will torpedo U.S. relations with China if it ever becomes public. Nick and Kate must work under the radar – and against the clock – to devise a plan to steal the piece back. Confronting Grove’s elite assassins, Nick and Kate rely on the skills of their ragtag crew, including a flamboyant actor, a Geek Squad techie, and a band of AARP-card-carrying mercenaries led by none other than Kate’s dad.

A daring heist and a deadly chase lead Nick and Kate from Washington, D.C., to Shanghai, from the highlands of Scotland to the underbelly of Montreal. But it’ll take more than death threats, trained henchmen, sleepless nights, and the fate of a dynasty’s priceless heirloom to outsmart Fox and O’Hare.

Thanks to @bookywookydooda at Headline for my review copy!

 

The Chase captures everything I enjoy in a book. There are two lead characters with a great dynamic, a rich and powerful adversary with his own henchmen, FBI agents, outrageous robberies and loads of humour to keep me laughing as I read. What’s not to like?

The Chase is the second in a series of books by Evanovich and Goldberg which feature Special Agent Kate O’Hare and thief/con man Nicholas Fox. Confession time: I missed the first novel (The Heist) but on the strength of The Chase I am certainly going back and picking up The Heist. At no time while reading The Chase did I feel disadvantaged that I missed the first book in the series, it is not assumed you know the back story and the authors ensure you have all the information you need to enjoy the latest tale.

Fox and O’Hare are a fun double act. The sexual chemistry is there, though it is somewhat tempered by O’Hare’s distrust of Fox’s criminal background. There is lots of snappy, wise-cracking banter which goes a long way towards keeping the humour level high (if you grew up in the 80’s then think Moonlighting).

The actual story is great fun too. A valuable statue which was on loan from China to the USA has been stolen and replaced with a duplicate. Fox and O’Hare have to find the original (stolen) statue, steal it back and return it to the museum removing the duplicate before the original theft is discovered. Easy!

Fortunately it’s not that easy and soon the best laid plans need updated and adapted.

The Chase is a great fun read, the Evanovich/Goldberg team keep the thrills flowing – there is the comedy I expect from a Janet Evanovich story yet with a more action based focus which I am attributing to Mr Goldberg’s influence. I cannot wait to read more in the Fox/O’Hare series.

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December 23

2014 – My Magnificent Seven

Although I have only been actively blogging for six months it is time for my end of year round up. A quick check of my blog finds that I have reviewed around 50 books in the last 6 months of the year. To select a top 10 from 50 seemed too many so I was going to do a top five. Until I started my list and I discovered that I wanted to include one or two more: Grab This Book’s Magnificent Seven was born.

So in no particular order I present the seven books that I enjoyed reading most (and the reasons why) during 2014.

 

Stalkers – Paul Finch

I was late to the party on Paul Finch’s brilliant Mark Heckenburg novels. The good thing about this was: by the time I read Stalkers there were two sequels and two more on the way.

Stalkers is a compelling thriller which pulls no punches and delivers shocks and twists in equal measure. I have probably recommended Paul Finch’s books to more of my friends than any other author this year – thus far I have had nothing but positive feedback from those that took my advice.

Stalkers Review

Doctor Who: Engines of War – George Mann

Cast your eye over my blog and you will find that Doctor Who books crop up fairly frequently. I make no apology for this, I have been a fan of the show for 35 years and I have been reading Doctor Who novels since the 1980’s. Not counting the books I read more than once, or the many audio plays, I think I have read around 350 different Who novels (although it is probably more).

For me, George Mann’s Engines of War stands out as one of the best that I have read. Ever. It features the Daleks, a new companion (Scarlet) and even better – The War Doctor. The Doctor has been fighting in the Time War, the Daleks fear him and the Timelords still cannot control him. His weariness of the War is telling and this is not a Doctor that can solve all the problems and just disappear in his TARDIS waiting for the next adventure. Mann catches the fatigue and frustration of the Doctor brilliantly.

If you enjoy Doctor Who and have seen John Hurt’s War Doctor in action then this is a must read. If you like an exciting good guy/bad guy story this is also for you, there is a great adventure to share. If you hate all things Doctor Who, this may not be the book for you. But I loved it!

Engines of War Review

 

Vendetta – Dreda Say Mitchell

Some books are in my list for personal reasons and some are here as they are stand out reads. Vendetta falls into the latter category. It was (without any doubt) one of the most entertaining books that I have read in recent years.

I cannot say enough good things about Vendetta and was thrilled to be able to participate in the Blog Tour when it was published. Dreda Say Mitchell penned a fantastic article Heroes to Die For  which featured on my site. The combination of hosting the tour, having an exclusive article to feature and the book being one of my favourite reads of the year made this a memorable title for me.

Vendetta Review

 

Digital Circumstances – Brian Stewart

Summer 2014 was an amazing time to be in Scotland. We had the Edinburgh Festival (as we always do), the Book Festival (as we always do) but we also had Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games and the small matter of the Indy Ref – the world was watching.

Three out of the four events were spectacular successes – the fourth is subject to ongoing debate but 55% of the people were happy at the time!

During the height of all things Scottish I started reading Digital Circumstances, written and self-published by Brian Stewart. The story is (mainly) set in Glasgow and had a great mix of cybercrime and gangsters. As Glasgow is a city I know well and was very much in the public eye as I was reading Digital Circumstances – it just seemed a perfect read at the time.

A fun read and worth seeking out.

Digital Circumstances Review

 

Someone Else’s Skin – Sarah Hilary

A debut novel and the introduction of a principle character (Marnie Rome) which the author is planning on developing into an ongoing series. I have included this book in my top picks of the year mainly because it was a brilliant story which I got totally drawn into as I read.

However, Someone Else’s Skin holds the honour of being the book in 2014 with the best plot twist. It totally floored me and had me re-evaluating everything I had read up to that point in the story.

I read well over 100 novels this year, it would be very remiss of me to exclude the year’s ‘Jaw Drop’ moment from the list of my top books.

Someone Else’s Skin Review

 

An Evil Mind – Chris Carter

A fellow blogger contacted me asking if I could help him by reading a Chris Carter book (a task I felt reasonably comfortable accepting). He had been set a mission by the publishers: to find readers who had not read Chris Carter’s work and see if he could turn them into fans. I agreed to help and duly received a copy of An Evil Mind.

Click through to check my review for a more comprehensive summary, however, the addition of four new Chris Carter novels to my bookcase in the last few weeks should give a fairly big clue as to how much I enjoyed An Evil Mind. When drawing up a shortlist of possible titles to include in my Magnificent Seven, nothing came close to dislodging An Evil Mind from the list.

My thanks to Shaun on this one – take some time to visit his blog at: www.bookaddictshaun.co.uk

An Evil Mind Review

 

Red Rising – Pierce Brown

The book that broke my rules. Don’t get drawn back into Fantasy novels. Don’t start a series of books if the last books are not published yet. Don’t lend out your copies of your favourite books to friends as you know they will love it. Three copies of Red Rising later I currently only have my digital copy left – I MAY get some of my paperbacks back (eventually)!

This book made me want to read Fantasy novels again – this is after an 8 year hiatus where I have only really read crime and thrillers. A must read novel and worthy for inclusion in ANY list of recommended reads.

Red Rising Review

 

So there we have it – my best reading memories from 2014 and a brief explanation as to why these books stood out for me.

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November 11

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart
Crooked Heart

When Noel Bostock – aged ten, no family – is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he ends up living in St Albans with Vera Sedge – thirty-six and drowning in debts and dependents. Always desperate for money, she’s unscrupulous about how she gets it.

Noel’s mourning his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette. Brought up to share her disdain for authority and eclectic approach to education, he has little in common with other children and even less with Vee, who hurtles impulsively from one self-made crisis to the next. The war’s thrown up new opportunities for making money but what Vee needs (and what she’s never had) is a cool head and the ability to make a plan.

On her own, she’s a disaster. With Noel, she’s a team.

Together they cook up an idea. Criss-crossing the bombed suburbs of London, Vee starts to make a profit and Noel begins to regain his interest in life.

But there are plenty of other people making money out of the war and some of them are dangerous. Noel may have been moved to safety, but he isn’t actually safe at all…

 

Thanks to Alison Barrow for bringing Crooked Heart to my attention and providing a copy for review.

Sometimes I get the chance to read books I would not normally have considered or that would not have appeared on my radar. After I began blogging I started seeking out new reading experiences, new genre, new authors and plots that don’t always involve solving a murder.

Take Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans: I finished it this morning on my train journey to work. I really enjoyed it and was disappointed when I found that I had reached the end of the last page. It was an enchanting story about people living during the Second World War. The central characters are likeable and quirkily mis-matched. They live under the constant threat of an attack by Hitler’s soldiers yet their daily struggles are much more relevant and worrying.

We follow Noel through the story, we see him lose his Godmother and then be evacuated from London to the country. He is housed with Vee, a struggling mother with a ‘useless’ son and an eccentric mother – Vee is trying to keep her sanity in a household where she has to do everything and is receiving no help from family or neighbours.

Although Noel and Vee are the stars in Crooked Heart there is a brilliantly established supporting cast. We hiss at Vee’s son who is a workshy layabout, gnash our teeth at Noel’s aunt and uncle who are ‘doing their bit’ but don’t want saddled with a difficult 10 year old. Noel’s teacher and classmates are used to highlight Noel’s non-conformity and we have the one ‘true’ villain – an Air Raid warden that considers looting to be a job perk. Real people living out life during the time of the blitz – totally absorbing reading.

Crooked Heart is a story about friendship, families and love – against the backdrop of the Second World War. It has replaced Carrie’s War as the book I will think of when I imagine life for a child during WW2. I loved the story of Noel and Vee, they came across as two misfits, not quite fitting the expectations of those around them and not really caring they are different.   The last page was heart breaking and poignant and the journey to that point made it so. Crooked Heart is highly recommended.

Crooked Heart is published in Hardback by Doubleday and is available now.  Follow Lissa Evans on Twitter @LissaKEvans

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