Jet- Russell Blake (2012)

This is a very different read for me.  I’ve had it on my Kindle for a long time and can only assume it was a free title I’d picked up at some time.  I thought I would give it a go but didn’t have a lot of positive expectations.  In a “From The Author” at the start, American born now Mexican resident Blake states; “It’s unapologetically over-blown and strives to be a non-stop adrenaline rush, an action thriller that breaks the mold and tramples convention.” He does deliver on that statement.

We start off in Trinidad on Festival evening where hitmen turn up at the internet café Maya is working in.  Dealing with this pretty effectively we learn that Maya had previously been Jet, working as a hitwoman for the Israeli Secret Service, a highly trained killing machine now seeking a quieter life.  Only this doesn’t happen as she realises her identity has been blown and sets off to seek answers.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with a ruthless assassin as a main character but Blake gradually lets her humanity come through without compromising on her toughness.  I found myself rooting for her when I was expecting to feel distanced from a potentially preposterous narrative.  I was also pleased that it wasn’t exactly a non-stop adrenaline rush aimed at a video-games market but that the author had put in some light and shade and welcomingly varied the pace. 

Wanting to know about Russell Blake I discovered that this was the first in this (so far) 16 book series featuring Jet and he has got it off to a roaring start and has developed the main character enough to get the reader to want to read more.  Whether he can sustain this over another 15 titles is another matter.

He’s not an author I would have thought would have been on my radar.  He has written a lot of titles and a number of series but he has actually got into the top division as co-author of a couple of books with action/adventure legend Clive Cussler in his best-selling Sam and Remi Fargo series.  This was where I had seen his name before, I haven’t read these titles but I have shelved them often enough at work in the library.  So this is an author who can operate at the top levels of his genre.  It wouldn’t be one of my usual reading choices and I felt I might get lost in the globetrotting, weapon hardware and espionage aspects of the novel but I felt well supported and guided by Blake (in the same Author’s Note I quoted earlier he explains there will be flashbacks.  “Don’t be alarmed when it jumps around a bit.  It will all make sense as you get further into the book, I promise” ). I wasn’t and it did.

If you like this kind of title then this is a treat and although it won’t feature in my end of year Top 10 it kept me reading, I did experience tension as it built to a strong plot climax and the author certainly delivered his intentions.  I might need to read more.

Jet was first published in 2012. A paperback edition is available through the Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. I read a Kindle edition.

Girl In The Walls -A J Gnuse (4th Estate 2021)

This debut is an unusual and highly effective thriller.  There’s been good buzz about it pre-publication.  This was one of the titles I highlighted to watch out for in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  We were promised a Gothic spooky house novel with comparisons made to Shirley Jackson.  I’m not sure I am on board with the comparison although it was this which attracted me to the title.  It is, however, highly enjoyable with a more original feel than the comparison might suggest.

Set in 2005 (judging by songs mentioned playing on the radio) just south of New Orleans, main character 11 year old Elise, having lost both her parents in an accident, escapes from her foster carers to return to a house her family formerly lived in now owned by the Mason family with two teenage boys.  There, unbeknownst to them she resides in the house, within gaps between walls, in hidden chutes and in the attic emerging when the family are not around or otherwise occupied.  This is working chillingly well until a younger boy turns up unannounced at the house and the teenagers in the family begin to have suspicions about the things going bump in the night.

I found the premise fascinating but did struggle with the geography of the house which would allow such a thing to be possible.  The tension is cranked up incredibly well when the boys begin to act on their suspicions and then environmental factors, particular to the region, begin to play a part.

As I was reading it I was aware of an easy option Texan author Gnuse could have taken and I was hoping he wouldn’t (he doesn’t) which means the story-telling is satisfactory throughout.  There are lots of unusual touches, including Elise’s fondness for Norse mythology and the characters of the neighbourhood boy and Eddie, the younger of the teenagers both give the novel a quirky feel (as does one character I don’t even want to talk about here in the interest of not revealing too much plot).  I was pulled in to the story, rather like Elise being pulled into the walls, found some section breath-takingly tense and all in all this ends up a quality commercial thriller with good literary touches which could also work splendidly as a TV or film adaptation.

Girl In The Walls will be published by 4th Estate in the UK on 18th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador 2021)

This entertaining novel sees Emma Stonex (her first written under her own name)  taking as her inspiration the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.  She moves the action 72 years forward relocating it to the Maiden Lighthouse in Cornwall and within her fictional account attempts to unravel this mystery.

In many ways it is a classic locked room thriller.  The men are found missing from the lighthouse which is bolted on the inside with food preparations on the table and clocks stopped at the same time. 

Alongside this narrative the author focuses on twenty years later and the wives and girlfriend of the three missing men as they are approached by a novelist wanting answers for his latest book.

What I feel is done very well is the 70’s set lighthouse sections which conveys the intensity and boredom of the three men cooped up together.  I felt that the more modern sections did not establish the characters as well, although, obviously, it is within these parts that the secrets of the past are revealed in first and third person narrative and through letters.

I was most intrigued by the almost romantic allure that the lighthouse had for the keepers whilst also acknowledging the reality of spending their working lives in a small inescapable space cooped up with others.  The book both builds up the appeal of this work as well as illustrating the downsides.  After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.

The author makes no assumptions as to what happened during the real-life disappearance in 1900 but comes to a conclusion as to her characters.  At times I felt this might go in some outlandish direction but it all feels plausible and in some ways that felt a little anti-climatic, I almost wish she had left things a little more open-ended, which was an unusual response because surely the motive behind reading the book would be to find out what happened..

This was one of the titles that I highlighted for 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post . I enjoyed Emma Stonex’s writing and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

The Lamplighters is published by Picador in the UK on Thursday 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lost Brother – Susanna Beard (Joffe 2021)

I have saluted the UK publishers Joffe here before for the sterling work they have been doing in lockdown to provide very affordable good quality commercial fiction.  This new publication which they invited me to review is the fourth novel by Susanna Beard.

It begins in the summer of 1987 when it is decided that 12 year old Ricky should, in the New Year, attend the same boarding school as his father did – in South Africa.  This fills Ricky with horror, he does not want to leave the UK and does not feel he is the right sort of person for boarding school but is particularly unhappy because of his close relationship with his 10 year old sister Leonora, and the thought of leaving her with his cold, cruel father and emotionally distant mother.  No amount of cajoling on the children’s part can stop the inevitable and once Ricky has left their father is determined to drive as big a wedge as possible between the boy and Leonora.

This novel is about the damage families can do to one another alongside the lasting bond of a positive sibling relationship.  Characterisation is solid and the sense of desolation endured by the separated pair is conveyed very effectively.  Leonora has always experienced synaesthesia, in her case letters are represented by colours, which is an unusual device on the part of the author but one which I wish had been made more of as it feels slightly under-realised.

The plot is always involving.  As the years pass the brother and sister are unable to forget how much they mean to one another as circumstances continue, through twists, to keep them apart.  Although I did not feel the ending was as “electrifying” as the cover suggests it all added up to a very satisfactory reading experience.

The Lost Brother is published on 11th February 2021 by Joffe Books.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.  

Before I Go To Sleep- S J Watson (2011)

S J Watson’s thriller debut made a splash on arrival, getting critical acclaim, picking up awards and having a 2014 film made of his book starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, (it’s currently on Amazon Prime in the UK, I haven’t seen it but may watch it this weekend now I have finished the book) not bad for a hospital audiologist writing on evenings and weekends.

The premise is fascinating.  A middle-aged woman wakes up each morning knowing nothing about her life, believing herself to be in bed with a much older stranger.  Shocked by her appearance as much older than she was expecting to see in her bathroom mirror she has to piece together her life since she lost her memory.  Each morning it’s back to square one, no recollections and needing her husband to fill in the gaps.  It seems that this has been going on for years and secret meetings with a doctor provide her with a strategy of getting some of these memories back.  She begins to keep a journal which makes up the bulk of the narrative and through this starts to realise that all is not as it seems.

This is a real-slow burn of a thriller and Watson is great at building up the tension gradually as the reader begins to share Christine’s mistrust.  I was very involved but felt the resolution did not live up to the build-up which had been so very good.  It’s impossible to read about Christine’s predicament without putting yourself in her shoes reflecting how you would react in her circumstances and that is a great way to build empathy for your main character.

This book’s success made it one of the key titles in revitalising the psychological thriller which dominates best-seller list almost ten years on.  Since then Steve Watson has published two more novels, the latest “Final Cut” published in August 2020.

Before  I Go To Sleep was published in 2011.  I read the Black Swan paperback version.

PS: Just watched the film last night. Oh dear! The slow burn and gradual cranking of tension has been abandoned and everything I liked about the book has more or less gone.  Instead we get a creaky standard straight-to-DVD type thriller with an unnecessarily starry cast who do not add much to it.  The film doesn’t limp above a 2* rating.  I wonder if the author was disappointed with the liberties taken to get this end result?

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

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The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Law Of The Four Just Men -Edgar Wallace (1921) – A Running Man Review

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British crime writer Edgar Wallace’s fourth publication in his “Four Just Men” series appeared three years after “The Just Men Of Cordova” and shows a marked change in structure as instead of being a novel this consists of 10 short stories. I was very  interested in finding out  how the author was able to use this form and hoping that it might be used to provide a bit of back story. Within the three novels I have read there are a number of references to previous cases which seem to represent a so far uncatalogued glory days for the foursome and this seemed like a perfect opportunity for Wallace to explore some of these cases in a short story format.

He hasn’t done this. Instead these unlinked stories fit chronologically into the pattern the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” uses being probably set after the events of the previous novel where, confusingly, considering the title, there are only two Just Men operating. This does allow a little more insight into character, perhaps the most significant is Leon Gonsalez, who has remained fairly under the radar in the previous novels who here has an interest in linking physical attributes and crime, which was probably a bit of an issue around the time this was published. So, large and long front teeth = probable murderer in “The Man With The Canine Teeth”. In a number of the stories it is the quirks of an individual which stands them out as a suspect, thus we get “The Man Who Hated Earthworms”, “The Man Who Loved Music” (well, the 1812 Overture) and “The Man Who Hated Amelia Jones” as titles.

Luckily, Wallace did not offer the same incentive to purchase as he did with his “Four Just Men” debut where readers were offered £500 to solve the case in a move which almost brought about financial ruin as people did and he was obliged to pay the sizeable amount to all those who did for this is very predictable fare with the odd twist but nothing like we have come to expect in short crime fiction in the intervening years.

This collection passed the time but probably wouldn’t be one that I would return to. I enjoyed the trickery involved in obtaining justice, my favourite being in the downfall of a drugs pusher in the elaborate “The Man Who Died Twice”.

The formula of these stories is pretty much the same as in the novels, a criminal has evaded justice and this has come to the main protagonists’ attention, somebody usually says something like “isn’t is a shame the Four Just Men aren’t around anymore” and the plan for retribution swings into action. Starting with this collection wouldn’t necessary put you off reading the novels but Wallace might be better at the more extended form.

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The Law Of The Four Just Men was first published in 1921. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Just Men Of Cordova – Edgar Wallace (1918) – A Running Man Review

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First published in the last year of World War I this was Edgar Wallace’s third novel in his “Four Just Men” series. There had been a ten year gap between “The Council Of Justice” and this reflected a time when he was writing prolifically as well as getting very involved in horse racing, starting up his own newspapers on the subject. Horse racing does feature as a major set piece which for its duration reads like a predecessor of a Dick Francis work.

The Just Men take more of a back seat with their identity still foxing and fooling those they come up against. The identity of one of the four is not even known by two of the others and that also builds up in the plot until this particular mystery is revealed.

Once again there is the odd turgid moment in the build-up. Central to this novel is Colonel Black a dodgy businessman whose opponents seem to be dying suddenly. There’s undetectable poison administered with a feather which keeps the plot ticking over until, and this seems to be typical of a Wallace novel the tension is cranked up for a more tautly written last third. This is where we get the aforementioned horse race where whole fortunes are staked and its aftermath which makes for some gripping reading and which excuses the business machinations in the earlier part of the novel which are not always easy to fathom for the modern reader and which may get the attention wandering slightly.

Typical of many adventure novels where the audience demands action some of the characters are underwritten but Wallace has here created one of his strongest characters I’ve read to date in Police Constable Frank Fellowe who has his own reasons for attempting to resolve the foul play.

Once again, by the end of the novel Edgar Wallace has whetted my appetite for more of the same which would go some way to explaining his contemporary popularity and longevity as a writer. There are three more novels to go in this Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” collection.

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The Just Men Of Cordova was first published in 1918. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

Next- Michael Crichton (2006)- A Running Man Review

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Prior to this I have read two Michael Crichton novels and they are not the ones you might expect.  He is most famous for creating “ER” for which I will be eternally grateful; but also for “Jurassic Park” (1990) and its sequel (1995); his debut in his own name “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) and “Westworld” (1974).  I haven’t read any of these, the two books I have read are “State Of Fear” (2004) a startlingly complex merge of environmental issues and science combined with a gripping, readable thriller which I thoroughly enjoyed and “Timeline” (1999) which grappled with quantum physics and time travel and which unfortunately did not work nearly as well and came across as tosh masquerading as science.  It’s the application of science which Crichton specialises in and with “Next” it’s the complex (for my little brain anyway) field of biogenetics.

If like me, your sole knowledge of biogenetics is limited to an awareness of the existence of GM crops, cloned animals (Dolly the sheep) and that nightmarish picture of a mouse with a human ear growing on it then you might think that all this might be a tad too complex for you.  Well it is, but that actually doesn’t matter as Crichton guides us along the issues in another very readable novel.

Interestingly, there’s no discernible main character in “Next” which is a little off-putting for those of us who like a central character for relationship dynamics to bounce off and this does mean that there isn’t really the depth of characterisation that a main protagonist and their relationships with others would provide.  What is there are a lot of interweaving plot strands, which Crichton keeps good control of.  I did find myself having to leaf back a number of times to recall what was happening to certain characters  as and when their story was resumed although that often proved to be needless as the author is good at prompting our memories.  You can see from this how he could manage long-running television drama with its ongoing story lines.  I know some readers balk at this style of writing but here it has been done well.

Basically, it is a novel of ideas with the plot developed to illustrate these.  The practice of patenting genes has impeded medical research and has potentially ludicrous legal ramifications when “ownership” of genes, cells and tissues gets called into question.  This is an area Crichton is keen to highlight, using real news stories along the way, demonstrating that he is not dealing with fictional flights of fancy here as his ideas are embedded in fact.  There’s a couple of genetically-modified animal hybrids including ape/human combinations who can talk and an African-grey parrot who can not only talk like a human but think like one too.  At times these plot threads come across as a little “cutesy”, but it’s the way they fit into a tale of medical research so rooted in fact that becomes alarming.

This sits in the middle of the three Crichton novels I have read.  It’s not as good as “State Of Fear” which had a stronger element of gripping thriller writing and was the novel which immediately preceded “Next” but it is considerably better than “Timeline”.  Michael Crichton died in 2008 yet his 18th novel under this name, the recently discovered “Dragon’s Teeth” was published earlier this year.

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Next was published by Harper in the UK in 2006