The Big Chill – Doug Johnstone

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart
of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter
the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when
a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears, and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves immersed in an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?

The Big Chill follows on from the wonderful A Dark Matter in which we met the Skelf clan – Dorothy, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah, proprietors of a funeral home and also private investigators on the side.

A rather… unusual mixture of professions to say the least.

I have to say that it’s an absolute pleasure to be back in the company of the Skelfs again. Johnstone’s writing is, as ever, a joy to read and the intricate, interwoven plots a delight to untangle.

The action kicks off with the death of a young man driving a car, gatecrashing the funeral Dorothy has organised, and ending up as both client and case, the former for the funeral business and the latter for the detective agency, as Dorothy is determined to get to the bottom of who he is and why he ended up in someone else’s open grave.

Dorothy also has to contend with a missing drumming student whose parents seem rather less bothered than you’d expect. And Hannah is trying to work out the circumstances behind the death of a professor at her university. And Jenny has the ominous presence of her abusive ex-husband to deal with on top of everything else.

This book is so layered, so nuanced – it’s not just about solving the mysteries and the bodies, but a real character piece in which our trio bounce to life off the page, full of life, death, regrets, issues, love and loss. Oh, and embalming fluid. I love the way we see the story (or rather stories) from the viewpoints of the three women and watch them play out alongside each other.

Book 2 can be a tricky one to pull off well, especially following such a strong start with A Dark Matter, but Doug Johnstone is a safe pair of hands and has delivered another corking adventure for the Skelf ladies.

Here’s to book 3! Hugely recommended.

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books in August 2020. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for the review copy.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air – Jackson Ford

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Teagan Frost’s life is finally back on track. Her role working for the government as a psychokinetic operative is going well and she might even be on course for convincing her crush to go out with her. But, little does she know, that sh*t is about to hit the fan . . .

A young boy with the ability to cause earthquakes has come to Los Angeles – home to the San Andreas, one of the most lethal fault lines in the world. If Teagan can’t stop him, the entire city – and the rest of California – could be wiped off the map.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air is the followup to The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind by the enigmatic Jackson Ford. I really enjoyed the first book, with its wall-to-wall shenanigans and Teagan Frost’s snarkiness and wise-ass internal monologue, so I was greatly looking forward to the sequel.

Then it transpired that Jackson Ford is actually Rob Boffard, author of some of my favourite kick-ass high-octane sci-fi, Tracer, Zero-G and and Impact. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have guessed. Awesome female lead, cracking action and a plot that just won’t quit.

Anyhoo. Having discovered Jackson Ford’s secret identity, this left me wanting to read Random Sh*t even more.

And reader, I was not disappointed. Ford takes everything we loved about book 1, cranks all those dials firmly up to 11 and lets rip. Book 2 is even bigger, even better, with all of our favourites back in action.

And they’re on the hunt for the most terrifying four year-old you’ll ever have the misfortune to cross paths with. Seriously, this kid is bad news. You thought temper tantrums were bad. Just wait until you get a genius-level child who revels in destruction. And I’m not talking about smashing up lego here, this is some serious earthquake action going on.

Sit back, strap yourself in. Teagan and the gang are going to take you on a wild ride.

Solidly recommended.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air by Jackson Ford is published by Orbit Books. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun from Orbit for the review copy.

Blood Red City – Rod Reynolds

A witness with no victim. A crime with no crime scene…

When crusading journalist Lydia Wright is sent a video of an apparent murder on a London train, she thinks she’s found the story to revive her career. But she can’t find a victim, much less the killers, and the only witness has disappeared. Wary she’s fallen for fake news, she begins to doubt her instincts – until a sinister call suggests that she’s not the only one interested in the crime.

Michael Stringer deals in information – and doesn’t care which side of the law he finds himself on. But the murder on the train has left him exposed, and now he’ll stop at nothing to discover what Lydia knows.

When their paths collide, Lydia finds the story leads through a nightmare world, where money, power and politics intersect … and information is the only thing more dangerous than a bullet.

I’m a huge fan of Rod Reynolds’ books, and loved his Charlie Yates books (Cold Desert Sky being the latest of these) which have a regular spot on my books of the year lists and are pitch-perfect 40s Americana. So it was with some excitement that I discovered he was writing something more contemporary, and closer to home. But will the new book capture the magic of the previous stories?

Enter Blood Red City. London, present day. Sweltering in the summer heat as only London can.

Journalist Lydia Wright is sent an anonymous video showing what appears to be a shocking murder on a London train. But all attempts to investigate come up blank. There’s no missing person, no body, and the witness is nowhere to be found. Who sent her the video, and why?

Reader, I loved it. Definitely a shift in gears from the Yates books, but Reynolds shows a deft hand at the modern-day thriller, and this is a cracking example. It’s gritty and brutal and falls firmly into the ‘just another chapter’ which you just know will mean a few too many very late nights!

Not only do we have Lydia doing her investigative journalist bit to try and track down the murdered man, but also in play is the enigmatic fixer Michael Stringer, adding a lovely (if that’s the right word) sense of menace to proceedings.

The trouble with a lot of thrillers is that they tend to be a bit… predictable after a while. There’s often a reliance on the coincidence, the ‘oh look at this thing that happened’ that a lazy writer might drop in to get character A from here to there to solve a particular problem. Happily Reynolds is having none of that, and delivers a splendidly twisty, yet utterly plausible and real plot which stands head and shoulders above most others.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a book with a real sense of place, where the location feels as much a character as the walkers and talkers. And here present-day London does loom large over proceedings, the summer heat sweltering off the page. Again, it feels solidly authentic and adds yet another layer to the story

I can’t help but wonder what Charlie Yates would have made of modern-day London, mobile phones and the internet when it comes to tracking down the bad guys!

Solid five star read, Rod Reynolds is one of those authors where I’ll read anything he does, because he does it so well. You should too. Blood Red City is a prescient, page-turning thriller. Superb. Go buy it.

Blood Red City by Rod Reynolds is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for the advance copy of the book to review.

We Ride The Storm – Devin Madson

We Ride The Storm - Devin Madson

War built the Kisian Empire. War will tear it down.

Seventeen years after rebels stormed the streets, factions divide Kisia. Only the firm hand of the god-emperor holds the empire together. But when a shocking betrayal destroys a tense alliance with neighboring Chiltae, all that has been won comes crashing down.

In Kisia, Princess Miko Ts’ai is a prisoner in her own castle. She dreams of claiming her empire, but the path to power could rip it, and her family, asunder.

In Chiltae, assassin Cassandra Marius is plagued by the voices of the dead. Desperate, she accepts a contract that promises to reward her with a cure if she helps an empire fall.

And on the border between nations, Captain Rah e’Torin and his warriors are exiles forced to fight in a foreign war or die.

As an empire dies, three warriors will rise. They will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

We Ride The Storm is a big, chunky epic fantasy told from three viewpoints. Rah e’Torin, the warrior. Cassandra Marius, prostitute/assassin. And Princess Miko Ts’ai, sister of the would-be heir to the Emperor’s throne.

It took me a little while to settle into the switching narratives, coming as they do from such utterly different viewpoints. Rah and his Swords, exiled from their home and forced to fight against their will had a gritty, brutal feel, whereas Princess Miko’s story was all court intrigue, double crossing and politics with a strong east Asian feel.

Then we have Cassandra and the mysterious voice inside her head, possibly my favourite of the three. I found myself turning the page wanting to read more about her and her quest to find the means to find silence.

All three of the protagonists, whilst very different, are all engaging and their stories just as strong.

The story is properly epic, wide-screen fantasy, with the three protagonists going along their own tracks for much of the book before inevitably converging in the final act. It’s fun trying to work out how and when their stories might overlap in this giant, war-torn tale.

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of blood shed in this book. There’s some great little bits of worldbuilding on show, with Rah’s horse-based culture and their tradition of removing the heads of the fallen to free their souls. There are a lot of heads removed from their bodies in this – and not all by Rah! It’s a brutal, no-holds-barred kind of world, and I’m looking forward to reading more in the next book.

Recommended.

We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson is published by Orbit Books. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book, and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

The Waiting Rooms – Eve C. Smith

Decades of spiraling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable: a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms.’ Hospitals where no one ever gets well.
Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything.
Because Kate is not the only secret that her birth mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Reading a book like this whilst in the grip of a worldwide pandemic was a little challenging at times. It’s an intense, gripping read which is all too topical.

I particularly enjoyed the jumping timelines. The nervous present where a simple infection can mean death, the over 70s are left without any antibiotics by law and the government has cracked down on hygiene security. No-one thinks twice about wearing a mask outside, or checking their temperature regularly. Hygiene is king.

Then there’s the before, set when tuberculosis infection rates are just starting to rise and the hunt is on for a miracle cure.

The story is told against this backdrop from the viewpoint of three protagonists. Lily, a woman on the verge of her 70th birthday in a care home, who thinks she’s seen a face from her past. Kate, a nurse who is looking for her birth mother after her adoptive mother dies. And finally Mary, whose story is set years before the current crisis in South Africa, on the hunt for the drug that might save humanity.

I do love a good timeline hopping story, and it’s fascinating to see how the lives of these three women interact across the years, coming to an entirely satisfying conclusion.

It took me a little while to get into the book, given the current climate. But what I found was an intriguing ‘what if?’ story which hits all too close to home. Strong characters, great writing and a chilling setting make this book an easy recommend.

Now go wash your hands. Stay safe.

The Waiting Rooms by Eve C. Smith is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Many thanks to Orenda Books and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the advance copy of the book to review.

The Truants – Kate Weinberg

Jess Walker, middle child of a middle class family, has perfected the art of vanishing in plain sight. But when she arrives at a concrete university campus under flat, grey, East Anglian skies, her world flares with colour.

Drawn into a tightly-knit group of rule breakers – led by their maverick teacher, Lorna Clay – Jess begins to experiment with a new version of herself. But the dynamic between the friends begins to darken as they share secrets, lovers and finally a tragedy. Soon Jess is thrown up against the question she fears most: what is the true cost of an extraordinary life?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a slow burn of a novel, based around a university campus and a group of friends with a charismatic, enigmatic tutor. It’s very much character driven, with plenty of layers to unpick as you’d expect in any good mystery.

And given the tutor’s course is based around the works of Agatha Christie, we can also expect a lot of did-they-didn’t-they along the way, though the mystery parts of this book don’t really show themselves until late in the second act. When it does though, you realise that the clues have been there from the outset, and it’s fun trying to figure them all out. Naturally I failed to do just that, but enjoyed this coming-of-age tale a great deal.

It’s a story about consequences, of unhealthy obsessions, of young love and betrayal. Weinberg has a deft ability to get you into the heads of the young students, their lives and loves and lusts, and there are shades of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, albeit in a small university campus in Norfolk, and more recently, M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains (though with Christie instead of Shakespeare) are clear, and if you enjoyed either book, then I think you’d enjoy this. I found the plot engaging and fascinating, and would recommend this.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback now. Many thanks to Bloomsbury and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for the copy of Kate Weinberg’s book to review.

Kate Weinberg was born and lives in London. She studied English at Oxford and creative writing in East Anglia. She has worked as a slush pile reader, a bookshop assistant, a journalist and a ghost writer.

The Truants is her first novel.

The Curator – M.W. Craven

It’s Christmas and a serial killer is leaving displayed body parts all over Cumbria. A strange message is left at each scene: #BSC6. Called in to investigate, the National Crime Agency’s Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are faced with a case that makes no sense. Why were some victims anaesthetized, while others died in appalling agony? Why is their only suspect denying what they can irrefutably prove but admitting to things they weren’t even aware of? And why did the victims all take the same two weeks off work three years earlier?

And when a disgraced FBI agent gets in touch things take an even darker turn. Because she doesn’t think Poe is dealing with a serial killer at all; she thinks he’s dealing with someone far, far worse – a man who calls himself the Curator.

And nothing will ever be the same again… 

Oh, how I’ve been looking forward to this. I read the first book, The Puppet Show on holiday last summer as loads of my bookblogger friends quite rightly said it was fantastic. That was followed by Black Summer later in the year, where Poe and Tilly went up against some very devious and dangerous shenanigans. I loved book #2 even more than the first.

And here we are with book 3, The Curator. Could M.W. Craven pull off that hat-trick?

Yes, yes he can. Look, if you’ve read the first two books you’ll need no incentive from me to go and pick up this latest instalment. Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are back on the case, and what a case is is. Someone is leaving severed digits as a trail of clues, and it’s up to our heroes to work out what’s up.

Look, I could happily read a story about Poe and Tilly taking a day off to go to the beach. Craven clearly loves these characters (as do we) and a large proportion of the fun is watching them bounce off each other as they work towards solving whatever crime they happen to be investigating.

But Craven is also a deft hand at a devious plot, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, red herrings strewn across our path like some kind of biblical plague. You’ll think you’ve got it sussed, only for something to pop up, whallop you across the chops with a large fish (like that Monty Python sketch) and run off, leaving you confused but still determined to work out what’s going on.

In short, I loved it. Go buy it and enjoy. If you’ve not met Poe and Tilly before, then get yourself to a bookshop (supporting the independents, obviously) and settle down for a treat.

Hugely enjoyable, and highly recommended.

The Curator by M.W. Craven is published by Little, Brown Book Group on 4th June 2020.

Many thanks to Beth Wright for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the advance copy to review via NetGalley.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine – James Lovegrove

Mal and the crew take receipt of a sealed crate which they are being paid to transport to Badger, no questions asked. Yet once their cargo is safely stowed aboard, River insists Mal should “space” it out of the airlock, for it contains, she insists, ghosts. With supplies running low, the crew desperately need another pay day, but soon find themselves paralysed by hallucinations of their deepest hopes and desires, so vivid they cannot be distinguished from reality. River is the only one unaffected, and desperately tries to awaken her crew mates, while the fantasies turn sour, and the ship begins to spin out of control.

This is the fourth original novel tie-in to the much-loved and much missed Firefly.

Gods, I loved that show.

The Ghost Machine takes place between the events of the series and the movie Serenity, and we find Mal and the gang on the planet Canterbury en route to picking up some… slightly dubious cargo from Hoyt Koestler, to deliver to their old friend* Badger.

Things quickly go awry, and hijinks, as one would hope, ensue.

I greatly enjoyed spending an afternoon in the company of our Big Damn Heroes. Lovegrove does a sterling job of nailing the characters, the plot is clever and the action whistles along. We get to see into the dreams of the crew, which lends a nice layer onto what we already know about them.

If you’re a Firefly fan (Browncoats forever!) then I’d highly recommend picking this up. If you’re new to the series, go watch it first! Then come back and read this.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove is published by Titan Books and is out in June 2020. Many thanks to Titan Books for the advance ebook copy to review.

The Library of the Unwritten – AJ Hackwith

Every book left unfinished by its author is filed away in the Unwritten Wing, a neutral space in Hell presided over by Claire, its head librarian. Along with repairing and organizing books, her job consists of keeping an eye on restless stories whose characters risk materialising and escaping the library.

When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto. But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong, in a chase that threatens to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell… and Earth.

I’m a sucker for a good library book. Or a good book about libraries. And this one is rather good.

In short, there’s a library in Hell, looked after by Claire, the Head Librarian. Her job is look after all the unwritten books. Shouldn’t really be that taxing. Should it?

Except that some of the characters tend to escape from time to time, and it’s Claire’s job, along with her apprentice Brevity (ex-Muse) to keep things in order. And they’re in the underworld, so nothing is ever straightforward.

Then just as they’re chasing a hero (who decides he quite likes being called Hero), a junior demon turns up and is promptly dragged back to Earth to go hunting for Hero and his book.

Oh, and there’s a fallen angel on the hunt for a book which shouldn’t exist.

What glorious fun they have! Hackwith takes the premise and just runs with it, having an absolutely splendid time along the way. The worldbuilding is marvellous, the action sharply written, and the plot fits together as neatly as an expertly shelved set of books. On a bookshelf. In Hell.

I love Claire so very very much.

The mundane tools of a librarian’s trade included notebooks and writing implements, and the less usual; inks that glimmered, stamps that bit, wriggling wax, and twine. All of them went into a bag that Claire slung across her chest. Pen and paper went into the hidden pockets of her muddled, many-tiered skirts. She’d been buried in some frippery that was dour even for her time, all buttons and layers. She’d chopped the skirt at the knee long ago for easy movement, but Claire lived by the firm moral philosophy that one could never have too many pockets, too many books, or too much tea.

Hackwith’s style is hugely enjoyable- echoes of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next adventures spring to mind here, and if you liked those, then I’m sure you’ll love this.

But this is very much its own adventure, and I highly recommend you dive in.

I was also delighted to discover there’s a sequel coming out later this year. Can’t wait to see what Claire and the gang get up to next.

The Library of the Unwritten, by A.J. Hackwith is published by Titan Books and is out now. Many thanks to Lydia Gittins at Titan Books for the review copy.

Goldilocks – Laura Lam

Ravaged by environmental disaster, greed and oppression, our planet is in crisis. The future of humanity hangs in the balance – and one woman can tip it over.
Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation.
It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this – to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make
a difference.
But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi starts to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret – and realises time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared…

Reader, I loved this book. It’s smart, on-the-button near-future sci-fi with a cracking cast, a plot that goes from zero to escape velocity pretty much on page one, and doesn’t let up.

Earth is, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed. Environmental issues and overpopulation have pushed her past the tipping point and humanity has maybe thirty years left. Luckily humans have one last hope – an exploratory ship going out to Cavendish, an exosolar planet in the habitable ‘Goldilocks’ zone around a star ten light-years away.

At the last minute, the all-female crew are replaced by men (rampant misogyny abounds in the future here, all too plausibly, alas), but lead by Valerie Black, the hand-picked crew promptly steal the spaceship and go anyway.

Hijinks ensue.

And what hijinks they are. Valerie Black and her crew are up against it all – criminals in the eyes of the men in charge back at home, but a shining beacon of hope for humanity, they must steal the Atalanta out from under the nose of NASA and embark on a perilous voyage, first to Mars, then on into interstellar space.

I loved it. Loved the dynamics between the women on board the Atalanta, loved the meticulously researched science, the climate science, botany, cryonics feel really… real. The blurb compares the book to The Martian in that regard, though Goldilocks‘ Naomi Lovelace is less ‘look how smart I am’ Watney, and hugely more relatable for it.

For all its sci-fi stage dressing (and immaculate dressing it is), Goldilocks is, at heart, hugely character-driven, and ultimately hopeful. It would make a brilliant film. Netflix, if you’re out there, get on it.

Superb. Highly recommended.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam is published by Wildfire on 30th April 2020.

Many thanks to Wildfire Books for the advance NetGalley copy to review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Laura Lam is the author of several science fiction books, including Radio 2 Book
Club selection False Hearts. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies such as Nasty Women, Solaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History,
Scotland in Space, and more.
Originally from California, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, and
teaches Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University.