DON’T STAND SO CLOSE – Luana Lewis

The unfolding of this tale is agonisingly tense and slow. Almost too slow so that I found myself tagged with an almost irresistible urge to skip on to some action, but the writing is good, painting the characters with deep shades, layer upon layer.

Stella is housebound, imprisoned by the bars of her agoraphobia, in her isolated home. But the snow and ice are now also making it difficult for her husband, Max, to join her. Then she finds a shivering fifteen-year-old girl on her doorstep, wanting to come in. Against her better judgement and despite her fear of strangers, she unlocks the door for the girl who calls herself Blue. At first Blue claims to be Max’s daughter, then her stories change, and Stella would like to throw the child out into the snow, but cannot…

Interspersed in the narrative are flashbacks to three years previously when Stella worked for Max in his practice as a psychologist, and her case with the assessment of a father’s suitability for the custody of his daughter. The father, Lawrence Simpson, sends shivers up Stella’s spine, but her professional impartiality as she tries to give him every opportunity to validate his claim is severely strained.

The third layer in the sandwich is from the perspective of a disturbed beautiful young woman with a sexual fixation on her therapist, and the progressive intensity of her desire in each session.

The only level-headed character is Peter, the policeman, Stella’s ex-boyfriend, who is still in love with her.

I have to admit, it was well over halfway along that I actually began to enjoy the story and stopped muttering “oh, do get on with it!”

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Best Horror 2014

From Salt’s award-winning stable of ‘Best British’ anthologies, comes Best British Horror. This fabulously gruesome new anthology is dedicated to showcasing and proving without doubt, that when it comes to horror and supernatural fiction, Britain is its obvious and natural home.

Now, this was treading into unknown territory for me as I’ve never read a short story in my life. Plus, it wasn’t quite crime fiction in its usual form, but I’m keen to try new things so I gave it a whirl.

I’m an avid reader of crime fiction but I can now safely say that horror – and short stories – are also up there on the top of my list. Crime and horror undoubtedly follow hand in hand, and these new stories had me sickened, intrigued and perplexed in equal measures. I suppose the beauty about short stories is that the variation in scenes, content and writing keeps your brain engaged that little bit longer than it would reading a full-length novel.

To begin with I did ask myself: ‘What exactly am I doing?’ I found the stories slightly odd and not wholly satisfying, but that was more my misunderstanding of short stories than anything else. Once I adapted and changed the way I read the stories I found myself whipping through them quicker than a speed reader in the national championships. I really was hooked.

The first story or two have you wrinkling your face with disgust, and then cringing as you anticipate the victim’s fate. We then move on to the weird and creepy and then the darn right disgusting. It did make me wonder just where these people got their inspiration from. (It’s quite disturbing knowing that these people walk amongst us to be fair!) We have stories that will ensure you leave the light on, and stories that will even have you questioning your own faith. It’s such an eclectic mix and wonderful variety of darkly delicious tales that it makes for a refreshing change from the normal crime/horror that we read.

There’s also a story in particular that I thought was a work of genius. Completely turning the art of writing on its head and portraying characters from a different viewpoint. Very clever indeed and intensely moreish. I’d have happily read more work by that particular author and will certainly be seeking him out on my next trip to the library. My favourite story (which I won’t divulge for I know you’ll only flick to it) was very well written with a chilling ending that would have had Houdini scratching his bonce. Having said that I think I have a few favourites, each for very different reasons, so the best recommendation I can offer is to buy the whole book and decide for yourself which one ticks your boxes and pushes your buttons.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone with a nervous disposition.

Wait – sorry – for those who don’t have a nervous disposition. But to be fair, you’ll have one after you’ve read it. Now go forth and enjoy this compilation of misery, murder and death.

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13:24 – A story of faith and obsession – M. Dolon Hickman

Far more than an unputdownable thriller!

As a thriller, it is a gripping story of the special customers that require specific get-off on the terror of children under discipline of the strap, the belt, the birch, as the exponents of the art of punishment and domination ply their warped trade, and film it.

It is the interwoven tale of three look-alike children caught up in the sick web of these needs. A religious bigot pastor builds his fame on the discipline of the old testament, using his own son as the demonstration of the success of his method as being the obedience demanded by God. His book is a hit and his fame spreads.

Josh is the lead of the cult rock band, Rehoboam, whose lyrics have reply to the Pastor’s twisted biblical babbling as he fights his inner demons and the drugs that show him a glimmer of peace.

And lastly, there is the police-detective and the Postal Inspector who try to follow a teenager who has gone on a killing spree, all the way to the breathless finale.

But –

As a social exposé of “spare the rod, spoil the child” exponents, this is a required reading textbook. It is shocking and topical and most of us will have first-hand experience of parents ramming their religious discipline down their kids’ throats, albeit not necessarily with corporal enforcement.

The flit back in time elements are dealt with smoothly and for me the tension never flagged. That the details of religious fervour and flogging were repeated and emphasised also did not feel repetitive or overdone, which could easily have happened, from a purely fiction point of view.

The cover, by DogEared Design, is an excellent reflexion of the gritty tale.

I recommend this book unreservedly.

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THE SON – Jo Nesbø

This is a non-Harry Hole novel, but still set in Norway. As usual the police, in the form of Inspector Simon Kefas and his new young extremely bright female partner, Kari Adel, are main protagonists. However, just as prominent is Sonny.

People called the boy Sonny and said that he had killed two people as a teenager, that his father had been a corrupt police officer and that Sonny had healing hands.

So, it was not surprising that internees in the Staten Maximum Security Prison would seek him out in moments of contrition and share their deepest confessions with him. Nobody has ever been betrayed by Sonny’s knowledge of their soul’s truth. And Sonny is on heroin so who can tell what he remembers or when he will overdose?

Then Raven, with only a few days to go before his release, and an intention to go straight, comes to unburden his soul. Sonny discovers that there is something more to his disgraced father than he ever knew. This morsel of insight casts doubt on the shame that has induced his self-punishment, and his acceptance of the burden of guilt for other crimes.

He breaks out of prison and begins the agonising stagger up the path to drug-use recovery, and to follow the scent of the truth amidst the stench of corruption.

And Kefas, his late father’s best friend, is one of the bloodhounds on his trail.

The thriller is all Jo Nesbø – interwoven skeins of evil and good and fallible humanity, and restitution. The writing is smooth and deep and colourful, the journey over the rapids exciting and the twist at the end is more like a whirlpool!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Son.

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The WEIGHT of BLOOD – Laura McHugh

When a beautiful young outsider, Lila, comes to Henbane to work for Crete Dane, she had not the slightest clue what she is letting herself in for. And in Henbane, outsiders remain outsiders, at least for a generation or two, even if they are as kind and well-meaning as Lila. But, despite the secrets and the warped loyalties, with enormous reluctance, at least a small handful of the residents befriend her before she disappears.

She leaves Lucy, a baby girl-child, and her husband, Carl, Crete’s ten-years-younger brother, and a lot of unanswered questions, behind.

Lucy, now grown, befriends a retarded girl who disappears for a year until her mutilated body is found in the stump of a riverside tree. A sense of guilt spurs Lucy to wonder if she could not have done more for her friend that might have helped her in some way; perhaps even prevented her disappearance. She starts to investigate the fate of this girl which also awakens the possibility that she might also find out what happened to her mother, Lila.

Oddly, and sometimes a little confusingly, the tale is told in first person by both Lila and Lucy, as well as input from various other people woven into their lives in Henbane.

However, this is an excellent story, told with well-fleshed, warmblooded characters that give colour and authenticity to the Ozark backdrop. It was a compelling read, sipped, savoured and swallowed without putting down the glass.

Marvellous. There is lip-licking anticipation for more from this first-time author.

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STAY ALIVE – Simon Kernick

Kernick is his usual ruthless, bloody, hard-hitting self.

Simon Kernick usually treads a fine line between the moral and amoral bent of his heroes. In STAY ALIVE our previous good-guys pay only fragmented visits.

Old friend, DCI Bolt, makes another appearance, but we don’t see much of him until the wrap-up. Also the tough unsubdueable Scope, still pursued by his own morality demons, who plays a bigger part. However, the main player is a teen city-girl, Jess, who starts out visiting her younger, adoptive sister, Casey, and her aunt and uncle in rural Scotland. Jess, nearly eighteen, with an assortment of chips on her shoulders, and some attitude, grows and matures through the desperate adventure, buoyed mainly by her love and care for Casey. Kernick moulds her character well and makes her a very credibly participant.

The family are on a canoe trip when a fleeing woman, Amanda Rowan, busts out of the bushes into their lives. Gunshots and frantic pursuit follow the two girls and Amanda, but the aunt and uncle are less fortunate.  The plot is convoluted and sometimes maybe just a little too coincidental, but the breath-robbing action never lets up. Good cops, crooked cops and ex-cops all play their part in the violence, betrayal and the blood-letting in true Kernick fashion.

When there is a new Kernick on the shelves, I lunge for it. STAY ALIVE does not disappoint.

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COCKROACHES – Jo Nesbø (Harvill Secker)

Having gained a modicum of notoriety from his success solving the case of the death of a Norwegian citizen in Australia, as narrated in The Bat, on the surface of it, Inspector Harry Hole is the man to send to Bankok. Norway’s Ambassador to Tailand has been found stabbed to death in a disreputable hotel, while ostensibly awaiting the arrival of a prostitute. With Harry in an alcoholic haze, he is not expected to dig too deep while the dubious aspects of the affair can be smoothed over. But Harry is incapable of allowing himself to be manipulated. He sobers up and starts digging…

I enjoyed The Bat, Jo Nesbø‘s first Harry Hole novel, which, as well as Cockroaches was translated into English later than several others in the series, but found Cockroaches to be, by a good leap, still better.

The characters unfold in a richly human procession as Harry, assisting the Tai police, delves behind the skirting boards of Bangkok and exposes the scuttling sleazy creatures lurking there, and the Ambassador’s secrets begin to see the light of day, much to the horror of certain powerful authorities back in Oslo.

In a few words, Nesbø paints his scenes, and even minor characters, with quick, defining strokes that allow the atmosphere to coat the narrative. You can smell the garbage, and the fear.

If you were in trouble, you would like to have Harry on your side. Loose cannon, part-time drunk with a subtle sense of both humour and of honour, he steps determinedly up the paths that angels fear to tread.

Encore, Mr Jo Nesbø.

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Youdunnit

Here’s the deal. Penguin and Specsavers ask crime fans ‘in the twitter community’ (Wot???) to ‘contribute plot devices’. Three established crime writers are then asked to build a short story around these ‘crowdsourced plot points’.

Does anything interesting result? No. Well, maybe a little. The twitter community’s suggestions are predictably banal – save one. The proposed ‘murder type’ is that the victims should all be the followers of a twitter account – and who has not been roused to murderous thoughts by social media? But more important, what is contributed is not plot: the hero’s python-skin cowboy boots are not plot, nor is her specified height or her age, or her ‘personality traits’ (‘sleeps badly’ FYI).

Wisely, the three writers ignore most of the contributions. When they do feel obliged to drop in those boots (for example) you can hear the dull thud. Nicci French is the only one of the three to do anything really ingenious with the victim-category. French also makes best use of the hero’s designated profession (travel photographer): it is her followers who supply the victims. Weaver and Gunn both wrench this glamorous job into something more useful to them: in Weaver’s South African setting (the twitterati asked for Dorset) she is filling in down-time by assisting an understaffed police-post; in Gunn’s story she is reduced to snapping roadworks for a provincial newspaper.

Crime and the short-story format aren’t natural bedfellows. Complex back-story puts too much of a strain on a spare form. Here, the hero is required to have ‘fallen in love in a neurotic and distracting way’. French’s boy friend is promisingly sinister, but ends up as a red herring. Gunn’s romantic interest obliges him to pile in a load of pre-history that might just have been plausible in a full-length novel, but doesn’t work in a tight space. Weaver just isn’t interested – indeed, the most powerful aspects of his story are (literally) half a world away from the cliché-ridden proposition that was put to him.

Did the writers find this an interesting challenge? I doubt it, though they may not want to upset their followers. If there’s one thing this fatuous exercise confirms, it’s that the twitter gang is seldom interesting – but it can get very nasty.

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L.A.Noir – John Buntin

This is history, not fiction, but it’s just as compelling – and sometimes it stretches the honest reader’s credulity in ways no story-teller could get away with.

Buntin organizes his account of lawlessness in the city of the angels around two figures: the gangster Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William Parker. The careers of both began in the 1920’s and ended in the 60’s. Cohen was short of stature, with a weakness for classy tailoring and long showers. His main beef about Alcatraz was the shortage of hot water. Parker was austere, opinionated, and convinced that his force was the nation’s finest. It’s said that he was the model for Gene Roddenberry’s Mr Spock. Under his jurisdiction, the LAPD answered to no-one but their own tribunals.

It takes a thief to catch a thief – and it takes one to know one. In American cities during the Prohibition era, not only were the lawmen in cahoots with the lawless, the lawless bankrolled the lawmakers – ‘donating lavishly to candidates for sheriff, district attorney, superior court judge, city council and mayor’. Cohen – who began his LA career as muscle to the legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel – escaped the gas chamber more than once on some technical nicety. His longest sentence was for tax evasion – like Al Capone.

As its title suggests, L.A.Noir is conscious of how closely it resembles classic crime fiction and movies. It’s familiar territory, packed with familiar names: not just the hoods and their molls, but film stars and politicians. Even Nikita Khrushchev and the evangelist Billy Graham. Like greedy lovers, high-life and low-life can’t keep their hands off one another, and those in between often come off worst. The book ends with two such notorious episodes in L.A’s history: the Watts riots of 1965 and the riots that followed when patrolmen beat up Rodney King in full view of a bystander’s video-camera in 1991 – and were later acquitted.

Dense, packed, L.A. Noir is essential background and bottomless resource. John Buntin’s impeccable notes and huge bibliography are a treasure-chest for anyone who stalks or patrols the mean streets and his frequent quotations from the gangsters themselves are a master-class in mob-speak.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares – James Lovegrove

A giant armoured figure is stalking the East End in pursuit of evil-doers.  Holmes has a rival of a very different stamp.  As bombs explode ever closer to the monarch herself, the mysterious Baron Cauchemar join forces to thwart a plot that threatens the British Empire at its heart.

Great stuff.  I’m not usually a fan of James Lovegrove – vampires and voodoo are not my cup of gore – but this is a pitch-perfect pastiche.  Only someone who relishes every quirk and nuance of Conan Doyle’s style could imitate him so faithfully.  The riffs where Holmes deduces a life-history on first acquaintance are spot-on. But I’m not a Holmes groupie, so I may not be the best judge of the total package.  Those who long for more from beyond the grave should visit the Titan Books website: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman certainly sounds worth a look.

But style isn’t everything and what purists might object to is the scale of the canvas.  Even the four Sherlock Holmes novels are short and spare; most of his appearances are in short-story form.  The Stuff of Nightmares is 300 pages and it’s not the only thing that Lovegrove bigs up.  The mechanical monster strides across London more like Batman than Moriarty.  Lovegrove courteously acknowledges a debt to Jules Verne, and there’s a touch of H.G.Wells in the mix too, plus not a little of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger.  But when the action-index approaches the Bond zone I think we may be way off-piste.  It’s the cerebral aspects of Homes that are his USP, and though he’s an adept at various martial arts, it’s brain-power that wins the day.  So when The Stuff of Nightmares ends aboard a dynamite-primed speeding locomotive, it recalls the prologue to Skyfall more than the denouement of A Study in Scarlet.

And note to publisher.  How daft is it to put on the back cover a quote from the review of a different book?  ‘Social commentary on religion, family, love and war…contest between theocracy and humanism’ this book is NOT.

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