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Book Review: Summary Justice by John Fairfax #SummaryJustice #BlogTour

The lawyer in me was attracted to the title and striking cover of Summary Justice, which led me to expect this to be about a legal battle against all the odds, even though unfamiliar with the author’s name. (Which as it turns out is a pen name.) Once I read the following blurb, I knew I had to read it.

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience. He was a twenty-one year old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder. He’d said he was innocent. She’d believed him.

Sixteen years later Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields. That night she walks back into Benson’s life. The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harbeton, whose family have vowed revenge. He’s an outcast. The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him. But he’s subsidised by a mystery benefactor and a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover. It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days. The evidence is overwhelming but like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent. Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive. But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harbeton on a lonely night in Soho.

You can’t get much more flawed as a criminal lawyer than if you’ve been convicted of murder, so even before you know much more about William Benson, you wonder why he did what he did, if he even did what he was convicted of, and why he’s now back in court but this time as counsel. He’s an intriguing character and one that we start to get to know throughout Summary Justice. I say start, because as this is the first book in an intended series, the reader won’t know everything by the end, even if the story threads are tidied up neatly enough to satisfy most readers while still leaving some unanswered questions to ponder until the next book in the series comes out.

It’s also interesting for two characters to have a past connection or shared history and meet years later, especially if there’s a shift in the dynamic as here. When William Benson and Tess de Vere first met, one was the defendant in a murder trial, the other a law student taken to court to observe law in practice. When they next meet, it’s after he’s studied law while serving some of his sentence, and is today not only out on licence but qualified as a barrister. Tess is also qualified, but as a solicitor rather than barrister, and she’s making a name for herself, currently in a respected London law firm. Although they’re both technically and professionally on the same side of the law now, it seems a part of William Benson will forever be classed, and treated, differently. Despite his apparent rehabilitation, some will always see the criminal in him, the murderer, and nothing beyond that.

If Summary Justice has such a memorable backstory, the present-day case also needs to be a good one so it’s not overshadowed, and it certainly is that. A single mother with a disabled son accused of murder in what appears to be an open and shut case. But nothing’s ever that straightforward and with only days to go before trial, Tess joins forces with Benson and his equally unusual clerk to delve deeper into it and come up with some answers, and a defence for their client. Read more

Book Review: The Method by Shannon Kirk #TheMethod #BlogTour

If you’re looking for a strong central character and are tired of female characters being portrayed as helpless, always waiting on a man to save or rescue them rather than doing the job themselves, then Shannon Kirk’s The Method might be the book for you.

You’re sixteen, you’re pregnant and you’ve been kidnapped.

If you’re anyone else you give in, but if you’re a manipulative prodigy you fight back in the only way you can. You use what you’ve been given against your captors.

You have only one chance to save your life and that of your unborn child. You’re calculating, methodical, and as your kidnappers are about to discover, they made a big mistake in abducting you.

What happens when the victim is just as dangerous as the captors?

It was the book’s blurb that first made me want to read The Method. The premise is as intriguing and different as its main protagonist. A pregnant teen doesn’t sound like your average victim, so while I had my suspicions about why she was targeted, I needed to know for certain what and who were behind her disappearance. And, as quickly becomes apparent, her kidnappers might have chosen the wrong girl. If they thought they were choosing a vulnerable and troubled teenager, they’re about to find out the extent to which appearances can be deceiving and just how fatal an error underestimating someone is.

For our narrator is anything but victim material: she’s already survived one traumatic event in her childhood. She has been raised to be one of life’s survivors. That, together with the pretty unusual skill-set she’s honed, means that this girl is about to turn her time in captivity into one big science project. And while some of her calculations are of their nature repetitive, as she finds a pattern to her days, there are also enough slight twists and upsets that this isn’t a huge problem. Besides, it’s interesting to try and work out if and how she’ll use each asset she identifies and labels throughout the book, and here Shannon Kirk will misdirect you, before reaching Show and Tell day.

Read more

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger #Cursed #BlogTour

Cursed is the fourth book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series but my first introduction to both the author and his investigative journalist protagonist and it works well as a stand-alone.

What secret would you kill to protect?

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests.

Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Norway’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history.

I have to confess that I initially chose to read this because, while the bulk of the action takes place in Norway, there was a Swedish connection. And I had a shiver of excitement reading the first page of the prologue to Cursed, which opens with a scene in Sweden and mentions the death of a character called Gunilla because when I was in Sweden I wrote a short story about a woman whose name is Gunilla and is sadly dead by the end. It felt as if my story was in some small way handing over the baton, or talking to Thomas Enger’s much better and far more polished novel. I got a kick out of that idea anyway but enough self-indulgence and back to what I made of Cursed.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the novel is told in dual narrative, Henning Juul taking one strand, and his ex-wife, Nora, also a journalist, the other. I liked seeing how they approached their work, bumped up against each other as they navigated life apart and after the death of their son, and tried to work out at which point the stories they were investigating might find some overlap. Henning and Nora are very different characters but interesting and strong enough in their own right to carry their part of the story when the other is off the page and it gives Cursed a very contemporary feel, having these two former partners still caring for each other and with a connection but also dealing with this next stage of their lives. Read more

Book Review: The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a stunning standalone novel which uses as its inspiration the case of one of Scotland’s worst serial killers. I was lucky enough to read the first chapter almost a year ago. Happily, I not only managed to resist googling the real-life people and crimes but didn’t have to wait until today’s publication date to satisfy my whetted appetite when the publisher sent me an early proof copy.

William Watt wants answers about his family’s murder. Peter Manuel has them. But Peter Manuel is a liar.

William Watt is an ordinary businessman, a fool, a social climber.

Peter Manuel is a famous liar, a rapist, a criminal. He claims he can get hold of the gun used to murder Watt’s family.

One December night in 1957, Watt meets Manuel in a Glasgow bar to find out what he knows.

Denise Mina certainly knows how to hook her reader. Her scene-setting is wonderful: in only the fourth paragraph, she shows you what Glasgow had been like, what it will become (the Glasgow most readers who’ve been there will know today) but then spirals you back to how it is at the time of the action about to unfold. So cleverly done. And then she walks two of her characters through this Glasgow, building the atmosphere and tension, until they meet the third and the game can commence. This is how it felt to me. That people were manoeuvring; positioning themselves but you don’t know what the play will be, or who’s on which side, except that everyone may well be only out for themselves.

Some of Denise Mina’s character description appears almost casual, a throwaway phrase, but it’s oh so telling. Very quickly, she sets her scene, fleshes out three fascinating but disparate characters as William Watt is taken by his lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, to meet a man with information about the Burnside Affair (brutal crimes carried out on Watt’s family). A man who was only recently released from prison. A man even Laurence Dowdall, Glasgow’s top criminal lawyer, clearly is wary of and even fears. Peter Manuel. Read more

Book Review: The Beautiful and Forever by Kevin MacNeil

I discovered Kevin MacNeil’s The Beautiful & Forever on a particularly successful bookshop browse. The title and cover drew me in and the Scottish island setting and the blurb on the back cover ensured that it came home with me.

On an island like no other, the annual Brilliant & Forever festival is a much anticipated event; its participants a story away from either glory or infamy.

This year, three best friends – two human, one alpaca – are chosen to compete, so victory is not only about reward.

Kevin MacNeil had me from the first paragraph of this beauty. He made me do a double-take while reading, and then laugh, and any author who does that in the first paragraph is likely to win my bookish heart. Besides, this book is about an island of writers who are gearing up for the annual literary festival: a festival unlike any other and one which exposes the preferences, prejudices and tensions within the island society. Which might make the reader think about their own society and its mentality, whether an actual island or one merely in terms of its attitude towards outsiders.

If you’re a writer or have ever been to a literary festival or a book event, this will especially appeal to you. There are egos, stories and every sort of writerly character here for you to enjoy. But it also works if that’s not your thing because it’s a novel about community and friendship, hierarchy and class, happiness and fulfilment, creativity, society and perceived outsiders. And Kevin MacNeil tells his story with a deal of quirk, whimsy, humour through the prism of three friends, one of whom is the novel’s narrator. And you probably won’t realise just how much is at stake for all of them until it’s too late and you find yourself caring and deeply upset when events take a turn in the book.

The Beautiful & Forever is a great read: it is beautiful and I wanted it to last forever.

A paws up from my Welsh Alpaca for the book.
A paws up from my Welsh Alpaca for the book.

The Beautiful & Forever by Kevin MacNeil is published by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited, and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can listen to Kevin MacNeil talking about the book here. You can buy it from Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about Kevin MacNeil and his writing and music on his Website or on Twitter.

Book Review: A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

An artist’s retreat with a difference in Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking becomes a beautiful meditation on our own fragility and how art and nature can both anchor and heal us.

Struggling to cope with urban life – and with life in general – Frankie, a twenty-something artist, retreats to the rural bungalow on ‘turbine hill’ that has been vacant since her grandmother’s death three years earlier. It is in this space, surrounded by nature, that she hopes to regain her footing in art and life. She spends her days pretending to read, half-listening to the radio, failing to muster the energy needed to leave the safety of her haven. Her family come and go, until they don’t and she is left alone to contemplate the path that led her here, and the smell of the carpet that started it all.

Finding little comfort in human interaction, Frankie turns her camera lens on the natural world and its reassuring cycle of life and death. What emerges is a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty.

Frankie’s voice is strong even when she is at her weakest. As her character shuts out most other people, the book relies on her perspective carrying it and it does this very successfully. Even when her situation frustrated me, I appreciated how self-aware she was being. I empathised with her need for retreat – I think most of us have felt the need for space or escape, even if we haven’t reached the crisis point which Frankie has. And it’s interesting to see her reconnect with mementoes and memories both in her grandmother’s house and from a trip to the seaside. Read more

Book Review: Ragdoll by Daniel Cole #RagdollBook #BlogTour

Daniel Cole’s debut novel, Ragdoll, intrigued me because it had not one but multiple victims, and I thought I’d enjoy seeing what the connections between them all were, that is, beyond the stitching that loosely connects the initial six. Here’s what the blurb says:

A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together, nicknamed by the press as the ‘Ragdoll’. Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William ‘Wolf’ Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.

The ‘Ragdoll Killer’ taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them. With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?

The prologue of Ragdoll opens with the end of what appears to be a wholly unconnected case to the one you’re expecting to read, that of the Ragdoll victims and their killer, so this was a disconcerting start. However, as quickly becomes apparent, the two cases are inextricably linked, thanks in great part to Detective Wolf’s involvement in both.

Wolf’s character is interesting: he’s about as flawed and damaged as a person can get, while still holding down a job, and stretches the ‘detective with issues’ idea to new limits. He’s recently reinstated and working with a team of detectives you’ll be familiar with from other detective novels or television series: the usual suspects are all here, but given his nickname, it’ll probably come as little surprise that William Fawkes is most comfortable when operating as a lone wolf. I couldn’t quite see how he had ever appealed to his TV journalist ex-wife or why his former partner on the force feels drawn to him. He’s volatile and obsessive when working a case which leaves very little over for anything, or anyone else. Of all the characters, though, it’s Wolf and Edmunds, the recent transfer across from Fraud, who held my interest the most. Perhaps because they are both terrier-like when on a case. I did like the Scot, Finlay, too but found Vanita fairly insubstantial and Baxter almost too much of a stereotype in any number of ways. Read more

Book Review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney #TheGirlBefore #TheBloggerBefore Blog Tour

I’m taking part in #TheBloggerBefore blog tour today to celebrate the publication of psychological thriller The Girl Before which came out on Thursday. #TheBloggerBefore me was Raven whose review you can read on her gorgeous blog everywhereandnowhere.

Enter the world of One Folgate Street and discover perfection . . . but can you pay the price?

Jane stumbles on the rental opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to live in a beautiful ultra-minimalist house designed by an enigmatic architect, on condition she abides by a long list of exacting rules. After moving in, she discovers that a previous tenant, Emma, met a mysterious death there – and starts to wonder if her own story will be a re-run of the girl before. As twist after twist catches the reader off guard, Emma’s past and Jane’s present become inexorably entwined in this tense, page-turning portrayal of psychological obsession.

The Girl Before opens on a situation (one past, the other happening in the present) most of us will have experienced: a letting agent is showing a woman (and in the past version, a woman and her partner) around flats within their budget in London. It’s a disheartening, and often demoralising, experience. And then, as letting agents often do, they save the best property to last: one within budget which is architect-designed and uses state-of-the-art technology to adapt and respond to the homeowner(s). Would they like to see it?

Naturally both women jump at the opportunity and while one sees it for the security it can offer her and the other admires its clean lines and beauty, both view it as a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. It feels as if it’s a house of second chances. But even if the rent is within their budgets, they first have to pass the rigorous vetting procedure and interview with the owner/architect before making One Folgate Street their home. And once installed in this admittedly beautiful but austere minimalism, they’ll have an extensive set of rules to adhere to, together with regular check ups to complete which affect the availability of some of the amenities. I’m pretty certain that even if I had passed the initial vetting process by some miracle, I would have fallen foul of only being allowed to have one stack of books kept in perfect alignment at all times! The opening question is one to ponder though: Read more

Book Review: Mischling by Affinity Konar

What often marks us out as different in the eyes of others can result in our being subjected to the worst forms of cruelty and abuse. Mischling depicts this to devastating effect but Affinity Konar doesn’t allow that to overwhelm her novel, instead showing us the resilience and resources drawn on by its victims, and focussing on the survivors.

It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks – a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin – travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

It is the story of twelve-year-old twins Pearl and Stasha, who upon arrival at Auschwitz are separated from their Mama and grandfather Zayde and taken to Josef Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the subjects of horrific experimentation. Mischling is heartrending and devastating, an effect only heightened by the dream-like quality given it by Affinity Konar’s beautiful prose, imagery and description more reminiscent of fairytales, the use of music, grandfather’s toasts, and the tricks and childhood games that help the twins through many ordeals in the notorious camp, including separation, and later search for each other and longed-for reunion. (One such game devised by Zayde called The Classification of Living Things could work as an alternative title for Mischling.)

Mischling finds beauty in the ugliest of places and hope and friendship where people are under extreme duress. Even if you are reluctant to read yet another Holocaust novel, I’ll let Stasha explain why Mischling deserves your attention. Here she is remembering a poppy her Mama once drew: “Sometimes, when things are too unbearable, the poppy threatens to multiply itself… I hope I never have cause to see a whole field of poppies like that.”

Mischling by Affinity Konar is published by Atlantic Books and is out now as an ebook and will be available as an audiobook and in hardback from 2 February. It is available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about the author on her Author Website, Facebook page or on Twitter.

My thanks to Lovereading and the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Book Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie #BURNEDANDBROKEN Blog Tour

Mark Hardie’s debut crime novel Burned and Broken marks the promising start to a new contemporary crime series covering issues with a good dose of realism in its seaside setting of Southend.

The charred body of an enigmatic policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend sea front.

Meanwhile, a vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

As DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell from the Essex Police Major Investigation Team are brought in to solve the mystery of their colleague’s death, dark, dangerous secrets begin to surface. Can they solve both cases, before it’s too late?

There’s an immediacy to Mark Hardie’s writing which quickly pulled me in and before I knew it, I was immersed. His world isn’t the Southend I know from day trips out of London with ice cream and amusements on the front: the treats in Burned and Broken are far less innocuous and the amusements are hidden away behind painted facades, while the seafront feels an altogether bleaker and more lonely place to be for the residents of the town. That’s because Burned and Broken focuses on the world in which the police live and work: it’s a world where alongside the routine work and investigation, regulations, checks and procedures, personal worries and concerns, there is neglect and abuse, broken relationships and homes, and damaged people, complaints and attacks, corruption and dysfunction, drugs and death, mental health issues and neglect, and violence easily triggered. There’s an intricate balance of sorts and when the cracks begin to show as the cases are investigated, I wondered if ultimately it would topple, and what would be the fallout. Read more