Monday, 17 July 2017

At last, the reading season is finally here

Okay, summer is finally turning glorious, and for me that usually means two things, often both at the same time: travelling and reading.

I mean, don’t get me wrong … I read all the time, but for some reason, whenever I’m on my holidays (or vacation, as they call it Stateside), getting my head into a good book seems to come a lot more easily. 

Maybe I’m more relaxed then, I don’t know – but when I’m settled in the sunshine, I can literally motor through novels (14 last August!). For which reason, I thought today might be an opportunity to showcase my planned reads for this summer.

I mentioned 14, so, maybe somewhat ambitiously, I should list the 14 novels coming up next on my reading list, though in one of those cases, Ive already jumped the gun. 

SIEGE, by that master of the explosive action-thriller, Simon Kernick, was supposed to be on the to-read list with all the others, but as I’ve already gone and read it, I’m today going to review and discuss that one instead. 

As usual, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s column.

But before we get to that, a quick word about one of my own books, which I hope a few folk might be interested in choosing for their own pile of summer reads. 

STRANGERS, my first outing for DC Lucy Clayburn, hit the bookshelves in September last year and is still selling well, I’m glad to say. But just in case you missed it the first time round, here’s a quick reminder that the Kindle version – which you can get HERE – is 99p for the duration of this summer period.

Anyway, back to the books I myself want to read and will be doing very soon. Here they are, in no particular order. I make no apologies for the fact that some of them are not exactly new releases. I discover books and authors all the time, and never have any hesitation picking something up from the past if I like the look of it. You’ll also notice that this list doesn’t just consist of crime, thriller and/or horror fiction. Okay, most of it is, but I like to think I have a reasonably diverse taste, and lots of different boxes which need ticking come the summertime. 

But enough of the prelims, let’s go …

To thoroughly satisfy my cravings for a big, international conspiracy thriller, I’m opting first for Terry HayesI AM PILGRIM. Okay, I know I should have read this modern classic already by now, but what can I say? ... I’m a busy guy. Anyway, what better way to kick off the summer reading season?

Here’s the official blurb:

A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel.

A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia.

A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory.

Smouldering human remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush.

A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.

One thread that binds them all.

One man to take the journey.

Pilgrim.

Horror takes many forms these days, and there are always a number of different categories that I find I need to check out. First up, I’m usually in need of at least one psychological horror fix per year, and this year I’m going for another book I should have read by now. It’s Paul Tremblay’s intriguing-sounding 2015 title, A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS.

Here’s the  official blurb:

The lives of the Barretts, a suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to halt Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface – and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.

Oceanic horror is another subgenre for which I must seek at least one annual fix, and it’s usually at around this time of year with a holiday abroad beckoning. One of my other favourite past-times when I’m in a hot climate is sea-swimming, and you know, there’s surely no better way to enjoy the chill of deep blue water beneath your feet than when you’re also thinking about the latest book of sea-horror that you’ve read. For this one, I’ve opted for Michaelbrent Collings’s much lauded novel of 2015, THE DEEP.

Here’s the official blurb:

A woman searching for a sister lost at sea.

A man bent on finding lost treasure.

A mother who has lost all hope.

A maniac who believes all life exists for his pleasure.

The man who would keep them all safe.

Together, they will all seek below the waves for treasures long buried, and riches beyond belief.

But those treasures hide something. Something ancient, something dark.

A creature that exists only to feed on those that would enter its realm.

A creature … of THE DEEP.  

On the subject of horror, you can’t beat a good creature feature. Oh yes, I like a monster or two, and this next choice has come highly recommended. If you like your Scandi-noir, but fancy taking it even further into the realms of darkness, check out Sefan Spjut’s STALLO.

Here’s the official blurb:

In the late 1970s, a young boy disappears from a summer cabin in the Swedish woods. His mother claims that he was abducted by a giant. The boy is never found.

Twenty-five years later, an old woman claims that a creature has been standing outside her house, observing her and her five-year-old grandson for hours.

When Susso – who’s dedicated her life to the search for creatures whose existences have not been proved – hears of this, and sees a possible link between the two incidents, she takes the road on a terrifying adventure into the unknown …

Crime thrillers that are dark, dirty and dingy are pretty much home territory for me, so you might think I’d get jaded on the matter, but not a bit of it. No reading list of mine would be complete without at least one piece of Brit-grit to get my teeth into. For that vibe, I’m going to one of the genre’s total bosses, Stuart MacBride, and his 2013 hit, CLOSE TO THE BONE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Sticks and stones may break your bones …

The first body is chained to a stake: strangled and stabbed, with a burning tyre round its neck. Is this a gangland execution or something much darker?

Someone’s leaving little knots of bones on DI Logan McRae’s doorstep, but he’s got bigger concerns. Rival drug gangs are fighting over product and territory; two teenage lovers are missing; someone’s crippling Asian immigrants; and Logan’s been lumbered with an ambitious new Detective Sergeant and gained the unwelcome attention of the new local crime boss.

When another body turns up, the similarities between these murders and the plot of a bestselling novel seem like more than coincidence. And perhaps those little knots of bones are more important than they look …

I absolutely adore frank, tough-talking cop stuff; hard-hitting police stories that are as much about the worn-out personnel as the vicious villains they encounter, and in which no-one is any better than they need to be. This year, there was only one choice on that front, Don Winslow’s epic 2017-release, THE FORCE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads an elite unit to fight gangs, drugs and guns in New York. For eighteen years, he’s been on the front lines, doing whatever it takes to survive in a city built by ambition and corruption, and where no-one is clean.

What only a few know is that Denny Malone himself is dirty; he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash. Now he’s caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds. He must walk a thin line of betrayal, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.

Don Winslow’s latest novel is a haunting story of greed and violence, inequality and race, and a searing portrait of a city on the edge of an abyss. Full of shocking twists, this is a morally complex and riveting dissection of the controversial issues confronting society today.


PENDRAGON

The historical-actioner is a genre I don’t delve into enough, but every so often I come across titles that I know I simply MUST push to the top of my reading list. This summer, there are two in particular that I aim to sample. They come to us almost from the opposite ends of history, but both of them promise battles and bloodshed galore, and really, if you’re still a lad at heart, what more could you ask.

The first of these is the brand new one from James Wilde (aka Mark Chadbourn), PENDRAGON.

Here’s the official blurb:

Winter AD 367, and in a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army have been brutally murdered.

Their mutilated bodies were discovered by an elite unit led by Lucanus. Also called the Wolf, he knows the far north to be a foreign land, a wild place ruled by barbarians, inhabited by daemons and witches – a place where the old gods live on. It is not somewhere he would willingly go and to him this ritual slaughter reeks of something altogether more dangerous.

But when the child of a friend is taken captive, Lucanus feels honour-bound to journey beyond the wall and bring the boy back home. He is not alone. For this is a quest that will span an empire – from the pagan monument of Stonehenge to the kingdoms of Gaul and the eternal city of Rome itself – a search that will embroil a soldier and a thief, a cut-throat and a courtesan, a druid and even the great Emperor Valentinian. And what is revealed will reverberate down the centuries …

From the best-selling author of Hereward, comes an epic new historical adventure of betrayal and bloodshed set during the bleakest of times – a time when civilisation itself was foundering, when the world faced a dark age and was in need of a hero.
The second of my chosen historical reads is likely to take an even grimmer tone, and if anything, is set at a point in history when civilisation was even more likely to collapse in flames. It’s David L. Robbins’ masterly 2004 WW2 novel, LAST CITADEL.

Here’s the official blurb:

One nation taking a desperate gamble of war.

Another fighting for survival.

Two armies locked in a bloody cataclysm that will decide history …

Spring 1943. In the west, Germany strengthens its choke-hold on France. To the south, an Allied invasion looms imminent. But the greatest threat to Hitler’s dream of a Thousand Year Reich lies east, where his forces are pitted in a death match with a Russian enemy willing to pay any price to defend the motherland. Hitler rolls the dice, hurling his best SS forces and his fearsome new weapon, the Mark VI Tiger tank, in a last-ditch summer offensive, codenamed Citadel.

The Red Army around Kursk is a sprawling array of infantry, armour, fighter planes, and bombers. Among them is an intrepid group of women flying antiquated biplanes; they swoop over the Germans in the dark, earning their nickname, ‘Night Witches’. On the ground, Private Dimitri Berko gallops his tank, the Red Army’s lithe little T-34, like a Cossack steed. In the turret above Dimitri rides his son, Valya, a Communist sergeant who issues his father orders while the war widens the gulf between them. In the skies, Dimitri’s daughter, Katya, flies with the Night Witches, until she joins a ferocious band of partisans in the forests around Kursk. Like Russia itself, the Berko family is suffering the fury and devastation of history’s most titanic tank battle, while fighting to preserve what is sacred – their land, their lives, and each other – as Hitler flings against them his most potent armed force.

Inexorable and devastating, a company of Mark VI Tiger tanks is commanded by one extraordinary SS officer, a Spaniard known as la Daga, the Dagger. He’d suffered a terrible wound at the hands of the Russians: now he has returned with a cold fury to exact his revenge. And above it all, one quiet man makes his own plan to bring Citadel crashing down and reshape the fate of the world.

A remarkable story of men and arms, loyalty and betrayal, Last Citadel propels us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank in combat, into the tension of guerrilla tactics, and across the smoking charnel of one of history’s greatest battlefields. Panoramic, authentic, and unforgettable, it reverberates long after the last cannon sounds.

I’ve always been a sucker for demonic/occult horror. It’s a well-trodden path in literary terms, of course, but there is never any shortage of new material. So, to tick this particular box, I’m opting for Jason Arnopp’s THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS, which came out last year.

Here’s the official blurb:

Jack Sparks died while writing this book.

It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he had already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed.

Then there was THAT video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed – until now.

MURDER AS A FINE ART

One field that often straddles both the thriller and horror genres is the Victorian murder mystery – you only need to think cloaked, top-hatted forms gliding through gas-it fog, and we’re there, aren’t we? – and though once again, it’s not a literary field I delve into regularly, I certainly couldn’t resist David Morrell’s 2013 novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART.

Here’s the official blurb:

The Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 were the most notorious mass killings of their day. Never fully explained, they brought London and all of England to the verge of panic.

Forty-three years later, the equally notorious ‘opium-eater’ Thomas de Quincey returns to London. Along with his 'Confessions', he is known for a scandalous essay about the killings: ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.

Days after his arrival, a family is killed in the same horrific way as the earlier murders. It seems someone is using the essay as an inspiration – and a blueprint. And De Quincey himself is the obvious suspect. Aided by his daughter, Emily, and two determined Scotland Yard detectives, he must uncover the truth before more blood is shed … and London itself falls prey to attack.

In Murder as a Fine Art, gas-lit London becomes a battleground between a literary star and a demented murderer - whose lives are linked by secrets long buried, but never forgotten.

TWILIGHT

Another subgenre that straddles several of my interests at once is that of the Rural Noir/Southern Gothic (whatever you want to call it). Often poetic, invariably dark, frequently grotesque, I find myself needing to hit at least one of these normally exquisitely-written novels each year. This year, it’s William Gay’s remarkable 2007 TWILIGHT (not to be confused in any way with all that teen vampire-romance stuff).

Here’s the official blurb:

Suspecting that something is amiss with their father’s burial, teenager Kenneth Tyler and his sister Corrie venture to his gravesite and make a horrific discovery: their father, a whiskey bootlegger, was not actually buried in the casket they bought for him. Worse, they learn that the undertaker, Fenton Breece, has been grotesquely manipulating the town’s dead.

Armed with incriminating photographs, Tyler becomes obsessed with bringing the perverse undertaker to justice. But first he must outrun Granville Sutter, a local strongman hired by Fenton to destroy the evidence. What follows is an adventure through the Harrikin, an eerie backwoods filled with tangled roads, rusted machinery and eccentric squatters – old men, witches, and families among them – who both shield and imperil Tyler as he runs for safety.

Coupling his characteristically poetic and haunting prose with a tightly controlled close narrative, William Gay rewrites the rules of the Gothic fairy tale while exploring the classic Southern themes of good and evil.

THE STARS MY DESTINATION

One area I dip into occasionally (less often than I should perhaps, though more than I used to thanks my never being less than inspired by what I find), is classic-era science fiction. It’s a vast range of titles, of course, so I can only pick from the memories I have of those my late father (a sci-fi buff on an epic scale) personally recommended to me. This summer, it’s Alfred Bester’s big hit of 1956, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (which would make it by far the oldest novel I’ve read and reviewed for this blog).

Here’s the official blurb:

Gully Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class.
EDUCATION: none
SKILLS: none
MERITS: none
RECOMMENDATIONS: none

That's the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman.

But right now, he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel - the Vorga - ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge. He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions ...


AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always had a soft spot for MR James-style ghost stories … yes, those pleasing supernatural terrors that were aired over brandy and cigars in wood-panelled drawing rooms, usually with the Christmas snow falling outside. I’ve written plenty and I’ve read plenty, though it’s difficult to get this kind of stuff at novel length. Perhaps it was inevitable, therefore, that another choice this year was Kim Newman’s 2015 update on the genre, AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY (and no, it won’t bother me that I’ll be reading it in the Mediterranean sunshine).

Here’s the official blurb:

The Naremores, a dysfunctional British nuclear family, seek to solve their problems and start a new life away from the city in the sleepy Somerset countryside. At first their perfect new home seems to embrace them, its endless charms creating a rare peace and harmony within the family. But as they grow closer, the house begins to turn on them, and seems to know just how to hurt them the most – threatening to destroy them from the inside out.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

SIEGE 
by Simon Kernick (2012)

London is a city well-versed in dealing with terrorism, but it’s a sheer impossibility to throw steel around all of its major landmarks. So, when an organised and proficient terrorist outfit launches a military-style attack on the ornate Stanhope Hotel, on Park Lane, the metropolis is taken completely by surprise. 

Already preoccupied by a series of diversionary bomb attacks, the authorities are not even there to intervene when a man known only as Fox, an embittered former British soldier and combat veteran, leads a heavily-armed group in a disciplined assault, which captures most of the hotel’s staff and guests almost immediately, closes the building off with booby-traps and explosives, and starts laying down impossible political demands.

A lot of people die quickly, in many cases killed merely to make a point. It’s plain from the outset that these terrorists are playing for keeps, and pretty soon almost the entirety of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a specialist SAS rescue squad, have got them surrounded.

A colossal siege then follows, a wide range of hostages awaiting its outcome fearfully.

Among these, Polish hotel manager, Elena Serenko, is the strongest, a diplomatic but authoritative figure, who never once loses her cool in the midst of the crisis, and becomes their unofficial spokesperson. Martin Dalston is there too, a forlorn character who has come to the hotel to die; recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he intended to commit suicide that evening, but now realises that he doesn’t just want to live, he wants to live and help those around him.

And then there is Scope … in his first outing (Simon Kernick has since written at least one more book following his exploits). Another disenfranchised ex-squaddie, Scope came to the Stanhope looking for vengeance regarding matters unconnected to this affair, but soon got caught up in the mayhem. He manages to lie low in one of the upstairs rooms, and is not corralled by the terrorists, but you sense almost from the beginning that he’s going to become their John McClane, their fly in the ointment, their ultimate pain in the ass.

Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it’s equally tense. The police are under the control of the normally efficient Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, though her position is far from straightforward. Unbeknown to everyone else, Dale’s own family were kidnapped that morning by the same terrorists, and she is now under orders to assist the gang by providing misinformation to the military and sending the inevitable SAS assault team to its destruction. Naturally, she doesn’t want to do this, but what choice does she have? Things are further complicated for her when news arrives that a senior MI6 officer, possessing vital information, is among the captives, and by Detective Chief Inspector John Cheney of the Counter Terrorist Command, a cool but inscrutable figure (and, inconveniently, a former boyfriend of hers) who constantly hovers in the background.

The strongest card Dale can play is Riz Mohammed, a London cop of Middle Eastern origin and an expert negotiator. He makes many gallant attempts to talk the terrorists ‘down’, but gains little. This is partly because their motives are far from clear. Though two Arabic figures have now emerged from the murderous band to take charge - their overall leader, Wolf, and his fanatical female sidekick, Cat - the rest of the team, like Fox, are westerners at odds with the British establishment, and though they are brutal and violent, we soon get the feeling they are less interested in the Islamist cause than they are the fabulous pay-out they’ve been promised if everything goes to plan.

It’s a hellish scenario, the authorities all but paralysed, the armed-to-the-teeth madmen killing at every opportunity, but Arley Dale doesn’t just sit there and accept her fate. Again in secret, she enlists a disgraced former-detective, Tina Boyd (another of Kernick’s very cool recurring characters) and puts her on the case. Boyd, a loose cannon at the best of times, doesn’t understand why she’s been trusted with such a job, until Dale, who expects to go to prison anyway, says that she must do whatever’s necessary to recover her missing family – there are no rules.

Scope meanwhile, who initially takes time off to protect an ailing American tourist and her young son, finally decides that he too must take the gloves off. These vicious, arrogant killers are not going to have it all their own way …

Well, this is an absolute corker.

It’s also vintage Simon Kernick, surely one of the UK’s best thriller-writers when it comes to high-level conspiracies, espionage and terrorism.

Make no mistake, this is a big, big story, involving a monstrous and complex crime which has the potential not just to snuff out multiple lives, but to endanger national security as well, and yet as always, the author handles every part of it with astonishing attention to detail, delivering the entire catastrophe in completely authentic and convincing fashion. He deals with the emergency services response in the same way, not putting a foot wrong as he pulls the police and military together, co-ordinating their various assets, including their technical resources (which in Siege are absolutely up-to-the-minute) in the most believable style. It’s almost as if he has personally memorised the section of the Major Incident Manual concerning mass terrorist attacks on London.

As I say, vintage Kernick.

And yet … all this stuff is no more, really, than the backdrop.

The most interesting thrillers are always about people, focussing on their conflicting personalities and relationships no matter what degree of chaos is unfolding around them. And Kernick doesn’t skimp on this. In fact, he gives us an ensemble cast, throwing all kinds of individuals into this maelstrom of gunfire and explosions.

At first, I wondered if this was going to prove to be a mistake; there are so many living, breathing individuals in Siege that I worried it might fall victim to what I call ‘Towering Inferno Syndrome’: in other words, the author gives us a bit of everyone, but not enough of anyone. But no, Simon Kernick is too much of an expert in his field to make that kind of error. Once we’ve met the cast, we quickly close in on the key players, two of the most exciting being Scope and Tina Boyd.

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

Yes, his work is often filled with straight bats like Arley Dale, and procedures and protocols hot from the Scotland Yard press. But quite often – and it’s certainly the case here – things are resolved by the smart thinking and raw courage of wayward individuals who, usually through misfortune, find themselves at the sharp end with minimal backup.

Don’t get me wrong. Earlier in this review, I alluded to Die Hard. And yes, there is more than a hint of that in Siege. But the action here, though fast and tough, is not quite so OTT. There are bombs, machine-gun battles and knife fights galore. But in this book, when people get shot and wounded, they are severely incapacitated at the very least. When they get put down by a heavy punch, they don’t get up quickly. Scope is not a man of iron. He is handy and experienced, but his main strength derives from his dogged nature and moral compass, which he engages regardless of the fine print. Likewise, Tina Boyd. She has had it rough; despite often doing the right thing in the past, she’s been on the wrong end of some politically correct but nevertheless harsh decisions – she is another who’s always prepared to risk it for the right result, and who isn’t just able to take a beating, but who can (and will) dish one out, herself, if necessary. 

In balance to all this, the non-violent characters in the book – Elena Serenko and Martin Dalston – are intriguing creations, nicely representing ordinary people at their best (and so often, of course, it is ordinary people who must navigate these terrible situations). They may not believe in have-a-go-heroism, but they’ll still do everything in their power to make things easier for those around them.

On top of all that, despite its massive canvas and huge rotation of characters, the novel is done slickly and quickly, the narrative bouncing from scene to scene at breakneck pace, allowing the reader almost no room to breathe – and yet still finding time to surprise us with curveballs. That’s another of Simon Kernick’s strengths. You never know the whole story; there is nearly always something shocking held in reserve, and Siege is no exception to that rule.

A terrific action-thriller, completely credible, totally enthralling and sadly, in our turbulent current age, more relevant now even than when it was first published.

It’s a bold man who’d try, at a whim, to cast a novel like this should it ever be adapted for the screen, but ‘boldness’ is my middle name. So, as usual, here I go (just for laughs, of course):

DAC Arley Dale – Naomi Watts
Scope – Robert James-Collier
Elena Serenko – Izabella Miko
Fox – Clive Standen
Tina Boyd – Gemma Arterton
Wolf – Naveen Andrews
Cat – Shiva Negar
DCI John Cheney – Ray Stevenson
Martin Dalston – Hugh Grant
Riz Mohammed – Cas Anvar

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