A Life in Books

For as far as I remember I was a voracious reader (long before I became a writer, and in that wake juggling as a publisher, bookseller and then a full-time writer again…). In fact, my first appearance in print was at the ripe age of 14 with a book review in the French SF magazine SATELLITE – if I remember precisely it was of Kurt Vonnegut’s THE SIRENS OF TITAN, and I authorita tively concluded no one would ever hear of the author again as at that precocious age I could make neither ends nor tails of the book; how’s that for acumen? Hopefully my critical powers improved a fair bit in my contributions to scores of newspapers and magazines and in the mid 1990s I became TIME OUT LONDON’s monthly crime columnist. This lasted 11 years and I was then head-hunted by the GUARDIAN, where I lasted an equal number of years. After Laura Wilson capably took over my slot, I enjoyed a few years’ sabbatical to appreciate reading without having to pass judgment, but found that when I came across a book I loved I needed an outlet to promote it and make people aware of its qualities and charms. Louise Weir at LOVEREADING offered me the opportunity to resurrect my column, which lasted until just a couple of months ago when LOVEREADING collapsed due to a dispute between its shareholders (despite the fact that it was actually profitable; the loss of an invaluable resource). So now, thanks to the kindness of Ion Mills and Barry Forshaw, I shall be reviewing 10 or so books a month for CRIME TIME (who in early days syndicated some of my columns published elsewhere, so that it’s actually a return of sorts to the fold).

A few words of warning: my tastes are pretty idiosyncratic and I prefer covering titles that are neglected elsewhere, hence the rare appearance of books by ‘big names’; I’m a lover of popular fiction in all its manifestations so there will be an occasional foray into SF, fantasy or even erotica (which won’t come as a surprise to those who know my own fiction); I’d rather not review a book than give it a bad review, as I’m painfully aware of the work and emotional toll that any writer has to endure (and don’t remind me or call me a hypocrite by evoking my short-lived ‘crap corner’ when I was doing my TIME OUT column, which once housed terrible, even nasty reviews three months in a row of books from the same publisher and editor, which did nothing to salvage our friendship…).

BOOK OF THE MONTH: Chris Whitaker/ALL THE WICKED GIRLS (Zaffre)  Chris Whitaker’s stunning debut TALL OAKS featured a quirky mix of poignancy and humour that sticks hard in my memory and his rapid follow-up offers much of the same, but with the comedic elements gently muted: tortured souls, a police officer who can’t disentangle the personal from the professional, missing persons, the oppressive background of small-town America and a merciless journey through every stage of personal grief. Despite the outward similarities, it’s a major achievement. Following the disappearance of her much-loved model sister Summer in the wake of five other church-attending young women from the area similarly gone missing, misfit Raine seeks out the truth and uncovers layers of secrets and everyday evil in her Alabama town. Bleak, involving, a delicately sketched portrait of bigotry and prejudice and human emotions dancing the light fantastic, this renews a tired genre with a dose of heart and empathy which appears to be becoming Whitaker’s forte.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Joe Ide/IQ (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)  Sherlock Holmes is resurrected in the persona of brilliant black kid Isaiah Quintabe in the ghettos of Los Angeles. An ex-petty thief who now undertakes small-time detective work for pennies or small favours, he is known to the neighbourhood as IQ. When a rap entrepreneur is threatened, he reluctantly takes on the case only to be faced with vengeful wife, drug dealers, a ferocious dog, the rapper’s down to earth but lethal mother and much more. The contrast between IQ’s ratiocinations a la Sherlock and the colourful modern locale in which he operates works wonders and this quickly becomes the sort of read you cannot put down and Isaiah a character I will be begging to see more of (there is a new instalment due next year…). He even has a Watson-like often reluctant sidekick named Dodson, a wily career criminal who exploits his association with IQ to the maxx, with much in the way of irony. Rather irresistible.

OF NOTE: John Connolly/HE  (Hodder & Stoughton)  In no way a crime and mystery novel, but a fascinating detour in the career of leading Irish author John Connolly, best known for his dense, atmospheric and slightly supernatural thrillers featuring haunted PI Charlie Parker. Visibly a labour of love, this is a fictionalised biography of the famous comic actor Stan Laurel. Ordered as a series of brief death-bed reminiscences, the legend who began his life as Arthur Stanley Jefferson before he sailed to America in search of fame and riches takes us through his rise and rise and career in vaudeville and Hollywood, his partnership with Oliver Hardy or ‘Babe’ as he is privately known. Divorces, conflicts with the studios, personal losses, epiphanies and tragedies flow through the narrative and provide an invaluable feel for a period and a fescinating, if awkward personality. Writing the story as a novel rather than just a straight biography gives the tale an extra layer of humanity and reality. Mission accomplished.

Haylen Beck/HERE AND GONE  (Harvill Secker)  I have long been a great admirer of Stuart Neville’s taut Irish-based thrillers steeped in the politics of the once torn country, many featuring conflicted cops Jack Lennon or Serena Flanagan, either separately or together, and am puzzled by what I assume was his publishers’ insistence on him adopting a pseudonym, Haylen Beck, for this excellent stand-alone book. Surely an author’s first major stand-alone should cement his reputation rather than become a small secret! Maybe it’s because of the well-evoked American setting, as Audra, a harrassed mother fleeing an abusive relationship races through Arizona only to be stopped by a disturbing cop and her children disappear and she falls accused as her nightmare truly begins when no one believes the children were actually with her. With the weight of the system (FBI, child services, etc…) firmly allied against her, she is quickly drowning in grief and despair. Oppressive and a compulsive read.

Felicia Yap/YESTERDAY  (Wildfire) A high concept debut with a foot in science fiction and another firmly in the thriller genre, this is a debut to seriously look out for. Set in an alternate reality where folk are divided by their capacity to remember things (the elite remember up to two days while the masses can only recall a single day at a time) this focuses on a long-married couple where the husband has been having an affair and his lover is found killed just outside his home. The theme of short term memory loss evokes Christopher Nolan’s movie MEMENTO as the often breathless investigation that ensues is observed from a variety of viewpoints: the man, his wife, the murdered mistress and Richardson, the detective with an agenda of his own. Multi-faceted, clever and with a series of challenging twists, this is a fast, rewarding and entertaining read that challenges and dares to try and so something new in the thriller stakes.

Alex Lamb/EXODUS  (Gollancz)  I have already reviewed the first two volumes (ROBOTEER and NEMESIS) in this vast-ranging, epic Science Fiction thriller trilogy on Lovereading so it would be remiss of me not to cover this final weighty instalment, which brings the Roboteer enterprise to a spectacular conclusion. In the far future, humanity is close to extinction in its struggle with a species of evolved artificial intelligences. Only Will, the troubled, reluctant anti-hero of the earlier volumes, a human whose brain has been crossbred with alien elements stands between the final catastrophe and survival. This is a technicolor widescreen set of adventures of the highest order with a particularly delicious set of villains, the Photurians, who are a blend of sentient AIs and machines and seemingly unassailable, and a plot that zigzags with surprises on every  corner, or should I say planet? Rewarding and with a dash of interstellar politics that echo our own reality and would not be amiss in contemporary spy thrillers.

Santiago Gamboa/NIGHT PRAYERS  (Europa)  This splendid South American novel has been overlooked by most crime and mystery reviewers and deserves to be brought to the attention of a larger public. Unashamedly literary and structured in unconventional ways and with an added dash of third world politics reminding the reader that atrocities and the ‘disappeared’ also occurred in Colombia and not just in Chile and Argentina. A young Colombian philosophy student has been arrested in Bangkok and faces the death penalty. His consul in New Dehli, himself a writer, is drawn into the case and unveils the back story that led to the event, and following the trail of the plane tickets the student had used, travels to Tokyo where the missing sister at the root of the whole quest was once working as an escort. Not only a thriller, but also a most delicate love story, an insight into politics and diplomacy and a meta novel about the art of disappearing, a most intriguing and rewarding read.

Amy Lovell/WHEN SHE WAS BAD  (The Greystone Press)  A powerful psychological thriller debut by a well-known author hitherto best known for her children’s books hiding behind the Amy Lovell pen-name, this novel ticks many boxes with stunning efficiency. Leonie Woodbridge is seeing Ruth, a psychotherapist, to determine why she has a fertility problem. She has always been under the impression that she accidentally (or was it actually deliberate?) killed her older sister Sidonie, when she only five years old, but as the conversation progresses and she delves into the recesses of her mind, she begins to doubt the story and her long held belief. As the past emerges to the surface, we confront a history of lies, family deception and a puzzle she is forced to reassemble from its shattered pieces. With a strong main character wonderfully fleshed out, grappling with her uncertainties, this is a compelling thriller which will hold you in its grip all the way through to the final page and some fascinating revelations. The stuff of nightmares.

Stella Duffy/THE HIDDEN ROOM (Virago)  A most worthy return to the crime genre by Duffy, an erstwhile Dagger short story winner and creator of the much-loved Saz Martin series, after a decade away in the mainstream and historical fiction. A same sex couple now live in the remote English countryside with their three children in a house in which Laurie comes across the eponymous secret space of the title. She is of Chinese descent, adopted and grew up in the USA and as her past story is revealed (she was implicated in a cult), Samuel, a newcomer teaching dance to one of her daughters and then her partner Martha, intrudes into their life, with possibly sinister implications and a connection to her past life. Domestic noir with a febrile and tense sense of dread bathing its every page, ticking all the psychological boxes with uncanny empathy and a true sense of dread. Welcome back, Stella.

Mel McGrath/GIVE ME THE CHILD  (HQ)  When a love child of her husband’s arrives at her door, the product of an old fling of his, Dr Cat Lupo, a neuro-psychiatrist is truly shocked. She and errant Tom, a games developer, already have a daughter Freya, but following a psychotic incident when she was pregnant, had ruled out further children, so the arrival of Ruby throws a heavy spanner in the works of their complicated relationships. An oppressive atmosphere makes this ‘stranger in the house’ psychological thriller rather compelling and the interactions between the dysfunctional four main characters becomes a tense tightrope where you expect the crash of doom at every turn. Clever, believable and an intelligent blend of backstory and present perils make this a slice of first class domestic noir by the author previously know as MJ Mcgrath, when she had polar bear hunter Edie Kiglatuk as a hero. Quite a change!





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