Saturday, November 28, 2015
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
A surprising debut delivering an enjoyable, action-packed read with modern-day echoes of Tom Clancy or Alistair MacLean.
Back when I was an adolescent, I loved to read Alistair MacLean novels. They were packed with adventure, international intrigue, interesting characters, and some mystery. To me, MacLean’s novels were captivating stories that were just flat-out enjoyable to read. Later I read Tom Clancy, who had some of the same elements, only with more convoluted multi-strand scenarios and far more technical detail.
So why am I reminiscing about library loves from twenty plus years ago, as I start a review of the debut release from a new Kiwi author?
Because in a strange way reading Thomas Ryan’s FIELD OF BLACKBIRDS pleasantly reminded me of those MacLean tales. Ryan’s first thriller is just a flat-out enjoyable read, with good characters that draw you in more and more as the story unfolds, plenty of action and intrigue to keep the pulse up and mind racing, all happening in an exotic locale where the lines between ‘good guys and bad guys’ can get pretty blurred.
Arben Shala, a vineyard manager in New Zealand, disappears while visiting his native Kosovo on a business trip. His boss, former special forces soldier Jeff Bradley, is concerned, particularly given an enigmatic message that could mean his good friend Arben is in grave danger. Bradley thought war zones were part of his old life, not his current one, but he travels to war-torn Kosovo to try to find Arben.
He finds an opaque world where the officials he asks for help might be more crooked than the criminals. Teaming up with some international aid workers and UN peacekeepers, Bradley navigates the dangerous landscape where conspiracy and treachery are everyday occurrences, and the disappearance of a vineyard manager might be just the tiniest tip of a far more sinister and dangerous iceberg.
Thomas Ryan does a good job of crafting the world of his story, and drawing the reader in. I found myself initially intrigued, then enjoying the read more and more as it went on. There are some nice twists, and plenty of interesting characters, heroes and villains, locals and visitors to Kosovo alike. I also really liked how Ryan - himself a veteran of war zones - brought Kosovo to life: it's history, people, geography. It felt like a complete canvas, a good backdrop to Ryan's well-told thriller tale.
A very solid debut that's an enjoyable and intriguing read, and left me wanting more from both this author and his main characters. Recommended.
Friday, November 27, 2015
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Sanders’ atmospheric US debut introduces a fascinating new ‘hero’, Marshall Grade, a former NYC undercover cop living off grid in New Mexico. A missing woman triggers Marshall to risk his cover, igniting violent confrontations with foes old and new.
What about a partially finished manuscript from a rather unknown crime writer (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) would inspire a Hollywood studio bidding war and one of the biggest stars in the world to sign up?
A bloody good story, that's what.
At heart, film producers, actors, viewers and readers all have one major thing in common - we love good storytelling. We want to be entertained, compelled, provoked. Nudged to think and feel. Caught up in a world of intriguing people, places, and events. Whether it's finding them, reading them, making them, or watching them, we're all on the hunt for great stories.
In his 'American debut', AMERICAN BLOOD, young New Zealand author Ben Sanders delivers just that.
It wasn't Marshall Grade's decision to swap New York for New Mexico: a botched undercover operation did that for him. Now he's an ex-cop pretending to be something else, living in the dusty towns and desert of the Southwest. A man of good intentions and violent actions, mixing choices good and poor.
His life of laying low and staying off the grid is upturned by his own sense of honor – or perhaps his wounded conscience – when a news story about missing local woman Alyce Ray catches his eye. Deciding to investigate alone, Marshall stumbles into a viper’s nest of drug dealing, gangs, and much worse. Meanwhile, his past hasn’t forgotten him either; there are plenty of people wanting to cash in Marshall’s final chit.
While Ben Sanders might be a new name to most readers in North America and Europe, the young Kiwi wordsmith has a good pedigree. He honed his crime writing craft with a very good trilogy set in his hometown of Auckland - three tales which collectively topped bestseller lists, made the longlist and shortlist for the Ngaio Marsh Award, and saw Sanders' pithy, tense, action-packed writing compared to Lee Child.
AMERICAN BLOOD shows a growing maturity from the 26-year-old storyteller: he's kept his whipcrack prose and exciting plotting, grown his already-good characterisation and penchant for delving into the violent, corrupt corners of society, and layered in a greater sense of atmosphere and philosophy. There's an expansive feel to AMERICAN BLOOD even if some of the action happens in claustrophobic places.
In a way, AMERICAN BLOOD feels like a modern-day Western, with Grade an enigmatic gunslinger: violence in his blood, righteousness in his heart, conflict in his soul. It makes for an absorbing concoction, and I can definitely see why Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper is keen to produce and star in a film version.
Powered by lean prose and dry humour, AMERICAN BLOOD evokes a gritty, seamy side of the Southwest, while delivering plenty of action layered atop some interesting moral questions. More importantly, perhaps, it heralds the arrival of a fantastic new protagonist who just screams for an ongoing series, and introduces a highly talented crime writers to a wider audience. Definitely worth a read.
AMERICAN BLOOD has been published in the United States this month by Minotaur. It is scheduled to be published in New Zealand and Australia, under the same title but a different cover, by Allen & Unwin in the coming weeks.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
Reviewed by Andrea Thompson
Fifty-year-old Verity Preston lives in the small village of Upper Quintern, where she grew up. Although she spent much of her adult life working in theatre production, she returned to live in Upper Quintern five years previously, when her prosperous father died and left her his house. This has enabled Verity to live quite pleasantly, taking care of the house and writing plays, an occupation which has provided her with moderate success.
One of Verity’s oldest friends in the little village is Sybil Foster, a well-off, flirtatious widow, who is in many ways Verity’s opposite. Where Verity is quiet, detached, and observant, Sybil throws herself in the middle of things, loves to attract attention, and makes much of her various illnesses. As well as being outgoing, Sybil is a controlling, demanding woman, who has firm ideas about the potential marriage of her young daughter, Prunella.
As the story begins, the village is experiencing some shake-ups. The gardener used by many of the better-off residents has died unexpectedly, resulting in his replacement by a vigorous man whose last name is, fittingly, Gardener. As well, Nikolas Markos and his son Gideon have recently moved to Upper Quintern, and Gideon’s handsome looks are causing Sybil concern, as she feels Prunella is much too interested in the young man.
There is sort of a timeless mood to this Alleyn book. Although Marsh specifies that it is after WWII, it’s not clear exactly what year the book is set in. People are concerned with rising taxes and the difficulties in getting domestic help, and people’s fashions seems a bit groovy – Nikolas and Gideon are wearing velvet coats when they host a dinner party. But there is still a sharp distinction between working class and upper-middle class in the story.
As is typical of many of Marsh’s books, it takes quite some time for Alleyn to arrive, as the mystery is carefully set up with various plausible suspects. When Alleyn does show up in the village to investigate a murder, Verity is struck by how distinguished he is, and Alleyn also seems impressed by Verity’s common sense and integrity. Alleyn mixes, mostly smoothly, with his suspects – charming but persistent, polite but relentless. He is accompanied by his colleagues Fox, Thompson, and Bailey, who get busy interviewing, dusting for fingerprints, and taking photographs.
Possibly the strongest part of this later Marsh book is the dialogue, although the plot is good as well. But the dialogue is fresh and energized. Many of the exchanges between characters are quite funny, particularly with the somewhat flighty Prunella, who tends to whisper rather than speak at a normal volume. And there is a very amusing scene towards the end of the story, when Alleyn winds up in a bar with a drunken doctor and nurse, trying to corral them into telling the truth.
Alleyn in the 1970s remains as reassuring, calm, reliable, and committed as he has been throughout the decades – always middle-aged, experienced, competent and smooth – and yet never losing sight of what is most important: catching the murderer and seeing justice done.
Andrea is an avid mystery reader from Ontario who loves crime fiction, both old and new, with a passion. She says she is drawn to mysteries because they focus on the search for truth. You can visit her Facebook book review page here.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Reviewed by Megan Casey
When a small boy is kidnapped from his home, most of Montezuma County turns out for the search. But nothing is as it seems with this case, and Detective Jude Devine soon finds herself caught up in a small-town soap opera whose players seem more interested in their 15 minutes of fame than in the fate of little Corban.
The second book in the Jude Devine series is a worthy successor to the first. Maybe more so, as author Rose Beecham doesn't have Fundamentalist Mormon sects to bash. Instead, she sets her sights on child abuse. A two-year-old boy goes missing from his home while the mother is out and her boyfriend babysits. Everyone in the book—and every reader—knows that the boyfriend is responsible, but he is somehow able to pile lie on top of lie to wiggle out of every inconsistency in his story.
The book reminds me more than a little of Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder by Tradition, where the murderer keeps changing his story every few minutes without actually convicting himself. Another comparison is that it is partly a courtroom drama, where the story plays out in the man’s trial, although with a much different conclusion. Beecham's style is not dissimilar to Forrest's and their protagonists are similarly aloof.
Jude’s relationship with Dr. Mercy Westmoreland goes way south when the good doctor decides to marry her English movie-star lover in a large, well-publicized ceremony (I wonder what happened to Mercy’s fear of being outed in the small Colorado town where she still works?). I never thought they were particularly well suited anyway. The good news is that Chastity Young—a character from the first book—drives back into Jude’s life and wins her heart. Her difficulty with sex will undoubtedly be brought out further in the next book in the series.
Another subplot here is the relationship between two new characters, Brenda and Lonewolf. Lone, unbeknownst to Brenda, is planning to assassinate Dick Cheney for helping move the U.S. into an unreasonable war--one that ultimately cost the life of Lone's previous lover. Jude suspects Lone of plotting something, but she isn't sure what. We'll undoubtedly find out next time.
As in the first book, there is a lot in the actual plot that doesn't actually make sense, but as I keep saying, we tend to overlook all but the more major plot glitches with the writing is good and the characters interesting. As they are in Sleep of Reason.
Megan Casey is an avid booklover from Billings, Montana. Born in Canada and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Megan studied English literature and library management, and has worked as a book editor and librarian. She moderates the "Lesbian Mysteries" group onGood Reads, and created the website The Art of the Lesbian Mystery Novel
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
A mutilated body is found on a lonely street in Reykjavík. Detective Grímur intends to see that justice is done. Kjartan Jónsson vows that his daughter’s killer will be punished. And that the punishment will fit the crime. Prime suspect Gunnar Atli desperately needs to prevent his own dark secrets from coming to light. And he’s not the only one.
THE MISTAKE was the first story from Iceland-based Kiwi author Grant Nicol that I've read. It won't be the last. Diving into this novella on a train journey in the UK, I found myself completely absorbed by Nicol's prose and storytelling. Hooked early, intrigued throughout.
Set in Nicol's adopted hometown of Reykjavik, THE MISTAKE has a simple but very effective set-up. There's been a brutal murder. There's a clear prime suspect - the very troubled man prone to blackouts who claims he just stumbled across the body. A cop and a bereaved father both want justice, but of vastly different kinds. Several people, all with secrets, collide.
Nicol does a superb job taking this premise and layering in a lot of complexities and intrigue. Beyond the "just what really happened - did Gunnar Atli do it or not?" hook, we are taken down a number of rabbit holes, as Nicol guides us into the darker parts of Icelandic society. Prostitution, treatment of the mentally ill, domestic troubles, crime and justice. Nordic Noir with a strong emphasis on the NOIR.
This is a very good crime tale.
Part of Number 13 Press's monthly series of high quality crime novellas, THE MISTAKE is small but perfectly formed. 150 pages that pack quite a punch, and leaves the reader reeling at times.
Being a novella, there isn't room for a massive amount of character development, but I felt that Nicol did a good job bring some depth to those involved; they were more than ciphers or caricatures, even if it is a very plot and atmosphere-focused tale. There's a real creepy sense to THE MISTAKE, a story of things going badly wrong in a world where bad things happen, beneath the snowy and peaceful veneer of Iceland.
Reading THE MISTAKE almost reminded me of those classic horror movies, which were brooding and creepy more than bloody and slasher-like. Absorbing, atmospheric, and suspenseful - powered by dark situations getting even darker as events unfold. Where the worst things happened off-screen, and were left to our imaginations, fuelling that gut-clenching psychological fear rather than blood-filled splatter and visuals.
Nicol is a talented storyteller who takes us on a short, but very good, ride.
Carole Beu and her team at the Women's Bookshop regularly put on terrific events (I've attended some in the past with the likes of Tess Gerritsen and Val McDermid) and are great supporters of good books and great writing. I'd highly recommend anyone near Auckland heads along tonight for the launch of THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB.
Jen Shieff's debut novel sounds very promising. A former government analyst, Turangi-based Shieff has delved into some real-life New Zealand history with her historical psychological thriller, that sounds like it might mix a few genres and appeal to a range of readers.
Here's the official blurb:
A psychological thriller that will shock you to the core. Headstrong and independent, Rita Saunders is a successful hairdresser by day and a busy brothel madam by night. The only thing missing from her life is the love of a good woman. Istvan Ziegler is a Hungarian immigrant who has come to New Zealand to work on the brand new harbour bridge project. He is full of hope and dreams of a better life. Sixteen-year-old Judith Curran has come to Auckland for an abortion. With no money or family support, she finds herself at the mercy of strangers and simply has to hope they have her best interests at heart. Becoming bound into a desperate situation involving a group of orphan girls, Rita, Judith and Istvan find fortitude they never knew they possessed. But do they have enough of it to expose the menacing orphanage director and the slice of the heartless and seedy 1950s' underworld he inhabits? The Gentlemen's Club is an honest and gritty debut novel that will linger with you long after you have finished reading it.I understand the book launch tonight is open to anyone, and kicks off from 6pm.
Reviewed by Mark McGinn
What’s worse than running over your neighbor’s dog? If you read THE DEVIL'S WIRE by Deborah Rogers, you’ll find out! There are surprises aplenty in this rollicking read and you might at the end, look carefully at what you really know about those closest to you. Are they who they really seem?
There’s a small cast of characters in this book but they’re all beautifully drawn by Rogers. Blunt South African antagonist, Lenise Jameson, is a bit of a favourite of mine. She provides endless suffering for protagonist Jennifer, seemingly for the careless killing of her dog who’d somehow gotten on to the road on a dark night at the very time Jennifer was concerned about not having an accident. Jennifer had been trying to rescue a loose mandarin from under foot.
But empathy for the life situation of both women is not difficult. Guilt ridden Jennifer’s relationship with needy husband Hank, is at best, running aground, and at worst, revealing a nightmare. Their only child, 12 year old McKenzie, has hateful rages towards her mother, largely it seems, due to Jennifer’s ignorance of what has been going on in the family home. Rogers is clever in showing us Jennifer’s psychology throughout e.g. sentences that paint a picture of a frantic and unsettled mind.
Meanwhile, Lenise with an adult son who does her no credit, is bereaved by the loss of her beloved pooch and soon finds herself on hard times. Early in the story Lenise is set up by an immoral rival to be fired from her real estate job. But her inability to sustain any meaningful relationship with a human being is not only down to a clumsy penchant for unsolicited advice. Her biggest flaw, one she is blind to, is her obsession about McKenzie, the daughter she wanted and never had. The more she wants that type of love and affection, the more she acts to prevent it.
Jennifer and Lenise, so different in their own way, become an unholy and dangerous alliance. They drive a carefully crafted and twisting plot that will have you on edge wondering how they get out of a horrible mess of their own creation.
When you take the characters, the plot and the liberally infused shades of dark humor, you’ll likely be wondering when you’ll be treated to more of the fine writing craft of Deborah Rogers.
Mark McGinn has published three crime novels. Based in Christchurch, he worked for many years in the New Zealand court system. You can find out more about him and his writing here.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
An armed robbery interrupts a drug deal, igniting a compelling crime tale powered by intriguing characters that has a good feel for life in rural and small-town modern New Zealand.
Toni Bourke is treading water, trying not to drown, as she operates the Black Horse pub in Rotorua. She's determined to keep the tills ringing as the months pass since the sudden loss of her husband, relying on the penchant of locals for both drinking and gambling while they socialise.
Outside in the dark, Pio Morgan nervously prepares himself. He's had a tough life and comes from a tough family, but he's not a tough guy. Duped by a local pot grower, he's backed into a corner, desperate for money. The lure of the Black Horse pub, with its treasure trove of pokie and TAB losings, is strong.
Gun in hand, Pio enters the pub. A moment of madness upends so many lives, lighting the fuse on a violent chain of events that pulls in locals and others from far away. Intertwined lives. Not all will survive.
Ray Berard's first published crime novel is a real cracker. An exciting beginning pulls the reader in, but it's the nice touch Berard has for a fascinating and diverse cast of characters, along with the way he revokes rural and small-town New Zealand life, that blends with the action and mystery to really elevate INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE to must-read crime novel territory. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started - Berard was a new author, a Canadian immigrant to New Zealand, setting a book in the central North Island. An area that combines tourist-enticing scenery with a blue-collar population and strong Maori influence.
For me, INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE started well and got even better as it went along, with Berard layering in depth to the characters and story as the action unfolded. I was curious at first, then intrigued, then enthralled. There was a good sense of balance between character and plot, with some interesting underlying themes and a well-evoked setting, sociologically and geographically.
This debut crime novel felt 'well-rounded', for want of a better phrase.
I understand that Berard is a former TAB supervisor (that's a New Zealand betting agency that has outlets all across the country, often attached to pubs and bars), and his experience and knowledge of the intricacies of that industry is well utilised. He does a great job evoking life in small-town New Zealand, including the focal point of the 'local', where various people from the community all meet to drink (and some to gamble), along with threading in the symbiosis between blue collar locals who keep the tills ringing and the 'corporate suits' in big city head offices who are focused more on numbers, bottom lines, and perceptions.
In some ways INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE feels like a snapshot of modern-day New Zealand, populated by a range of authentic characters: hard-working people, blue collar and white collar, bludgers, gang members, cops and criminals. The weak and the wounded, the courageous and the strong. Those trying to do right by their family and those willing to sacrifice others to get ahead. Everyone trying to survive.
Even when I thought I could see where INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE was going, plot-wise, Berard did a nice job at throwing in a few surprises, crafting an engaging story that felt fresh and unique even as it delivered the kinds of things fans of crime fiction expect and like to see from the genre.
Great characters, good action, some nice prose. A surprisingly excellent local crime thriller, and the best debut New Zealand crime novel I've read in a few years. Highly recommended.