Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker

Everyone has a secret in Tall Oaks . . .

When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town. Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.

Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures.

Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake.

Photographer Jerry, who’s determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all.

And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own…

From time to time you might have heard me say that a book kept me up late, wanting just one more chapter.

Tall Oaks was one of those books.

Except in this case, I couldn’t stop at ‘just one more’. I couldn’t stop until it was done.

Twenty to three on a Sunday morning. That’s what time I finished Tall Oaks.

That’s how good it is.  The rest of this review is merely set dressing, just go and buy it already. It’s going to be in my top ten books of the year, I can tell you that now.

I’d heard chatter about Tall Oaks on twitter, mainly from Liz of Liz Loves Books. And Liz particularly loved this book, and wasn’t shy about saying so (is she ever?). I’d somehow managed to resist, citing an ever-growing, tottering TBR pile. But in a moment of lapsed attention, I found myself with a copy on my kindle. I settled in for a story of a small town and a missing child, thinking that I’d read stories like this before.

How wrong I was. Tall Oaks is a beautifully wrought tale of small town America, shot through with a deft line in wit and with what were to become some of my favourite characters in a book, ever. Manny and Abe, I’m looking at you.

The characters in Tall Oaks all have their story to tell, and what stories they are. There’s a real depth to these people, quirks, secrets and lies playing out over the days and weeks following the disappearance of three year-old Harry.

The sense of small town America seeps through the pages of this book and I was surprised to find out that Chris Whitaker is, in fact, British – born in London and living in Hertfordshire and yet has captured the feel of the town so brilliantly. What’s even more astonishing is that this is a debut novel – the writing, plotting and characterisation are confident and accomplished, and if this is just the start of Chris’s writing career, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

Thankfully we won’t have too long to wait, as his new novel  All The Wicked Girls is out in the summer. My pre-order is already in.

You can find Chris on twitter @WhittyAuthor.

Defender – GX Todd

In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it’s dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where something… unusual has happened, Defender tells the story of a young girl called Lacey and a drifter, Pilgrim. The world has changed – the biggest threat to mankind is from the voices that have started appearing – voices which tell people to do bad, bad things. Suicide, murder or a descent into madness – you don’t get to choose, the voices do…

Defender is a thriller, of sorts. It’s also part horror, and you could argue there’s a dash of sci-fi in there too. It’s also startlingly original, blackly comic, bleakly desolate, with an utterly fantastic cast of characters, and a setting which just oozes menace. It’s one of those ‘just one more chapter’ books, which keeps you up until far too late.

It’s dark and brutal, and definitely not for the faint-hearted, but if you give it a chance, it’ll grab you by the hand and take you on a dust-soaked ride across the wilderness to some places you’ll not soon forget.

It’s a stunning debut, and I highly recommend it. Yes, it’s going to be one of those books that I pester you about until you give in and read it. You may as well just go and read it and save yourself the nagging.

I can’t wait to find out where book 2 will take us. I just know that it can’t get here soon enough.

You can find GX Todd on twitter @GemTodd. Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.

James Bond: Hammerhead

James Bond is assigned to hunt down and eliminate Kraken, a radical anti-capitalist who has targeted Britain’s newly-upgraded nuclear arsenal. But all is not as it seems. Hidden forces are plotting to rebuild the faded glory of the once-mighty British Empire, and retake by force what was consigned to history. 007 is a cog in their deadly machine – but is he an agent of change, or an agent of the status quo? Loyalties will be broken, allegiances challenged. But in an ever-changing world, there’s one man you can rely on: Bond. James Bond.

Hammerhead collects the six-issue mini-series by Andy Diggle, illustrated by Luca Casalanguida.

I think this may well be the first graphic novel I’ve ever reviewed. I’ve read a few, but this is definitely the first Bond.

I’m a huge Bond fan, both the books and movies, so it was interesting to see how well it translated to this format. I have to say I was impressed – we’ve got a very authentic-feeling Bond story, plenty of action and nice one-liners thrown in, an implausibily-named villian and some evil shenanigans, with a smattering of globe trotting .

The action comes thick and fast from the start and there’s nary a pause for breath as Bond follows the trail of ubervillain Kraken and a cunning plan involving stolen nukes.

So far, so Bond. It’s glorious fun spotting where the story is going to go. The villian’s motivations are delightfully sinister, if a bit random – I’m not *entirely* sure that our Kraken really thought things through here, but it’s a minor niggle.

Will definitely be looking out for more of these in future. And I’ve realised that I’ve missed the Warren Ellis/Jason Masters Bond books, so I’ll be off to check those out.

James Bond (the reviews) will return…

Many thanks to Dynamite Entertainment and NetGalley for the review copy.

The Man Who Loved Islands – David F. Ross

In the early 80s, Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller were inseparable; childhood friends and fledgling business associates. Now, both are depressed and lonely, and they haven’t spoken to each other in more than 10 years. A bizarre opportunity to honor the memory of someone close to both of them presents itself, if only they can forgive and forget. With the help of the deluded Max Mojo and the faithful Hamish May, can they pull off the impossible, and reunite the legendary Ayrshire band, The Miraculous Vespas, for a one-off Music Festival—The Big Bang—on a remote, uninhabited Scottish island?

Regular readers of the blog will be well aware of my fondness for Mr Ross and his books – The Last Days of Disco was my first experience of a blog tour (and what a way to start!) and The Rise & Fall of The Miraculous Vespas followed last year, raising the bar once more.

A year later (more or less) and we’re back again with The Man Who Loved Islands, rounding out the trilogy in fine style. I adored the first two books for both their amazing sense of place and time.  Book three continues with this, taking us on a journey through the later 80 and from Ibiza to Shanghai, bringing us up to the present day and back full circle to Scotland as Max, Bobby, Hammy and Joey come together one last time for one final, glorious outing.

This is a book of three parts – we follow the rise and rise of Bobby Cassidy and his ever-faithful sidekick Hamish as they take over the Ibiza music scene. Joey (now Joseph) has become an architect, adrift in the corporate world of Shanghai. A message from Hammy brings Joey back to see his old friend and, when one thing leads to another, hijinks ensue.

And what glorious hijinks they are. Max Mojo and the boys decide to put on a gig and reunite the Miraculous Vespas for one last, epic gig the like of which the world has never seen…

I loved seeing how Bobby and Hammy took on the Ibiza club scene. Growing up around the same era as the books were set gave it something extra for me, though I was never into the club scene, the musical references are, as ever, perfect. Fascinating to see them grow up from the young, vibrant guys in the first books into middle age – still gloriously foul-mouthed (this book is probably not for the prudish!), and with a fine line in bickering.

Heartbreaking, poignant, and ferociously funny, it’s a perfect ending to a fabulous trilogy. If you’ve not come across the Vespas, the Heatwave Disco boys

If you’ve not come across the Vespas, the Heatwave Disco boys or the incomparable Max Mojo, then get yourself all three Disco Days books, a nice wee dram (or maybe a bottle) of something and settle down for a musical journey through the years.

You’re in for quite a ride.

Book 18 of 2017 The Man Who Loved Islands by David F. Ross, finished last night with a wee dram of @copperdogwhisky. Highly recommended, both!

Enormous thanks to Karen at Orenda Books (@OrendaBooks) for the review copy, to David F. Ross (@dfr) for taking us on one last journey back to Ayrshire (and to @CopperDog for the splendid whisky!)

Opinions are, as ever, entirely my own.

The blog tour continues tomorrow!

Dog Fight – Michael J. Malone

Dog Fight - Michael J. Malone

Kenny O’Neill, a villain with a conscience, returns in a hard-hitting thriller of exploitation, corruption and criminal gangs. When Kenny’s cousin, Ian, comes to the aid of a fellow ex-squaddie in a heap of trouble, he gets caught up in the vicious underground fight scene, where callous criminals prey on the vulnerable, damaged and homeless. With Ian in too deep to escape, Kenny has no option other than to infiltrate the gang for the sake of his family. Kenny is an experienced MMA fighter, as tough as they come, but has he found himself in the one fight he can never win?

Dog Fight is gritty and brutal, a vicious story of illegal fight clubs and the ex-servicemen who are forced to fight for their lives against a backdrop of PTSD and abandonment by the state.

The characters are fantastic, portrayed warts and all. The action is intense and pulls no punches (sorry) as we’re drawn into Kenny’s world as his cousin Ian gets caught up in the shady world of underground fight clubs. There’s a real sense of menace running through the pages. Not everyone is going to get out of this in one piece, and some aren’t going to get out at all.

There are some brutal scenes in the book, it’s not for the squeamish, but it’s a worthwhile read. The plotting and characterisation is top-notch, with a nice layer of dark humour in the dialogue running throughout.

Thanks to Contraband for the review copy, and to Gordon (@grabthisbook) for organising the blog tour. Dog Fight by Michael J. Malone is out now in paperback and ebook.

Faithless – Kjell Ola Dall

I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl. Faithless is being published by Orenda Books in paperback on 15 April 2017.

Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back and this time, it’s personal… When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he ponders the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda investigates a disturbingly similar cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway and Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.

Faithless is the fifth in Kjell Ola Dahl’s series of books featuring his detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich. I’ve not read any of the others, but Faithless can (and indeed was!) easily read as a standalone. They’re quite the pair, our detectives. Inspector Frølich is investigating the murder of a woman who was engaged to a childhood friend – a friend he hasn’t seen for the past 20 years. Meanwhile Gunnarstranda is looking into the disappearance of a university student. Then there’s the cold case (is there any other sort in Norway?) which bears striking similarities…

Faithless is classic Nordic Noir. The pace of the investigation is slow and steady, with clues being turned over gradually as the story progresses. Don Bartlett has done a fine job here of translating – as he did with Gunnar Staalesen’s We Shall Inherit the Wind, and if you’re a fan of Gunnar’s work, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. The writing is punchy and the sentences short – something which took me a little while to get into the rhythm of, but soon settled into and patience was well rewarded.

The characters are well-developed and the plot is nicely twisty, keeping you guessing up to the end. Our detectives rely on good old fashioned police work, getting out and talking to people, pounding the streets and piecing the puzzle together bit by bit. It’s a classic police procedural in that sense, with a nice psychological angle and a fantastic ending.

If I had any criticism (and I really am nitpicking here) it was the sense of place – regular readers will be well aware of my fondness for books which give you a real sense of place and identity of the country. There’s certainly some on show here, but I think I’ve been spoiled by reading so many other fantastic Nordic Noir stories over the past couple of years! It’s a tiny point and definitely a personal thing for me – it shouldn’t put you off!

Thanks as ever go to Karen at Orenda Books (@OrendaBooks) for the review copy, and to Anne Cater (@annecater) for inviting me onto the tour.

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl is published in the UK by Orenda Books and is available in paperback and ebook. Translated by Don Bartlett.

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire - John Scalzi

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

I just loved this from the first page. Fast-paced, with funny dialogue which fizzes with snark and a glorious cast of characters. We’ve got grand Houses battling for influence with the Emperox, wormholes, sarcastic space captains, pirates, dukes and a glorious cast of minor players in the empire-spanning game of power.

Favourite character is hard to pick – there’s the deliciously foul-mouthed Kiva, daughter of the House of Lagos, unafraid to speak her mind (and she does get most of the best lines). Cardenia, newly-annointed Emperox Grayland II, ruler of, well pretty much everything, and not entirely thrilled about it. The rival Houses, with their Machiavellian schemes to gain or influence power reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Dune (though slightly more foul-mouthed).

The plot veritably bounds along from planet to planet (or slightly more accurately, from planet to Hub) as we follow our heroes (if you can call anyone here a hero) on an exhilarating, rip-roaring galaxy-spanning adventure.

Book one of a new series, and I cannot wait for Book 2.