The Man on the Street – Trevor Wood

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When homeless veteran Jimmy thinks he witnesses a murder in Newcastle, the police refuse to believe him. He’s not quite sure he believes his own eyes. Then he sees missing persons posters matching the description of the man he saw killed, and he realises he wasn’t mistaken. But how do you catch a killer when nobody believes a murder has been committed?

Together Jimmy and the dead man’s daughter decide to take matters into their own hands and hunt down the murderer themselves. They soon realise it will be a far more dangerous task than they could ever imagine.

But Jimmy has one big advantage: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

Recent winner of the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award, Trevor Wood’s The Man On the Street had been on my radar for a while. Then it went and won an award, I was between books and before I knew what had happened, I found myself clicking ‘buy it now’ and a copy arrived on my Kindle.

Nowt like winning an award to boost sales! I polished the book off in two sittings, and it was easy to see why it won. In a market saturated with grizzled detectives (often with an interesting past and a quirk or two), having a homeless veteran as the lead felt distinctly fresh and immediately interesting.

But a story doesn’t live on a main character alone, and The Man On The Street has a great cast, and a fantastic location (ok, I might be biased as I’m from Newcastle orginally!). I loved following Jimmy around the city as he investigated the suspected murder. Newcastle has a very distinct feel and atmosphere to it, and Trevor Wood captures it brilliantly.

Jimmy Mullen is a great character too, with a real depth and complexity to him. A veteran of the Falklands War, his flashbacks to his time in the Navy are raw and often brutal. Indeed all the flashbacks to his life leading up to the time of the story just make you want to root for him all the more.

It’s a dark, gritty story which has a real authenticity to it. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy now.

The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood is published by Quercus and is out now.

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Sister – Kjell Ola Dahl

Suspended from duty, Detective Frølich is working as a private investigator, when his girlfriend’s colleague asks for his help with a female asylum seeker, who the authorities are about to deport. She claims to have a sister in Norway, and fears that returning to her home country will mean instant death.

Frølich quickly discovers the whereabouts of the young woman’s sister, but things become increasingly complex when she denies having a sibling, and Frølich is threatened off the case by the police. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that the answers lie in an old investigation, and the mysterious sister, who is now on the run…

Sister is the 9th of Kjell Ola Dahl’s Olso Detectives books, following on from the events in The Ice Swimmer, which I loved. I’m a big fan of Dahl’s books, and it’s good to see our friend Frank Frølich back in action and taking more of a lead role this time round. Suspended from the force, he’s struck out as a private investigator. Then he meets the mysterious Matilde who might just have a job for him.

The case is, at face value, simple enough. Find a missing woman. So far, so standard. But this woman is the titular sister of an asylum seeker who is about to be deported. And she came to Norway years ago, changed her name, and disappeared into the system.

Coupled with the investigation into the sinking of a ferry some thirty years previous, the two cases appear unconnected. But are they?

Dahl’s plotting is as deft as ever, and whilst the story might not be quite as dark as with The Ice Swimmer, it’s just as good. I do love a good slice of Nordic Noir, and Dahl never fails to deliver. The pace is measured and never rushed, but still the tension is ratcheted up notch by notch as the investigations proceed to their entirely satisfying conclusion.

Translation is once again handled by Don Bartlett, delivering Dahl’s punchy prose. I’ve started getting used to Dahl’s style, with his short, snappy sentences, and was hooked from the off.

Sister, by Kjell Ola Dahl is published by Orenda Books at the end of April. Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Legacy of Ash – Matthew Ward – blog tour extract

Delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Matthew Ward’s Legacy of Ash – it’s a big chonky fantasy book, but more on that later!

First, an extract from the start of the book. Get yourself a brew, settle down and enjoy!


One

Preparations had taken weeks. Statues had been re-gilded. Familial portraits unveiled from dusty canvas and set in places of honour.

The stained glass of the western window glittered in the afternoon sun-light. Come the hour of Ascension it would blaze like fire and cast an image of divine Lumestra into the hall so that the sun goddess too would stand among the guests.

It would not be so elsewhere. In the houses beneath Branghall’s walls the part of Lumestra would be played by a doll, her limbs carved from firewood and her golden hair woven from last year’s straw. There, her brief reign would not end with the fading of the sun. Instead, hearth-fires would usher her home on tongues of flame.

The chasm between rich and poor, ruler and ruled, was never more evident than at Ascension. Josiri strove to be mindful of that. For all that had befallen his family, he retained comfort and privilege denied to many.

But a prison remained a prison, even if the bars were gilded and the guards polite.

Most of the guards.

“That will have to come down.” Arzro Makrov extended a finger to the portrait above High Table. “She has no place here, or anywhere else in the Tressian Republic.”

Josiri exchanged a glance with Anastacia. The seneschal’s black eyes glimmered a warning, reinforced by a slight shake of her head. Josiri ignored both and stepped closer, footsteps hollow on the hall’s flagstones. “No place?”

Makrov flinched but held his ground. “Katya Trelan was a traitor.” Impotent anger kindled. Fifteen years on, and the wound remained

raw as ever.

“This was my mother’s home,” said Josiri carefully. “She would have celebrated her fifty-fifth year this Ascension. Her body is ash, but she will be present in spirit.”

“No.”

Makrov drew his corpulent body up to its full, unimpressive height. The setting sun lent his robes the rich warmth of fresh blood. Ironic for a man so pallid. The intricate silver ward-brooch was a poor match for his stolid garb. But without it, he could not have crossed the enchanted manor wall.

Josiri’s throat tightened. He locked gazes with Makrov for a long moment, and then let his eyes fall upon the remaining “guests”. Would any offer support?

Shaisan Yanda didn’t meet his gaze, but that was to be expected. As governor of the Southshires, she was only present to ensure Josiri did nothing rash. Nonetheless, the slight curl to her lip suggested she found Makrov’s behaviour tiresome. She’d fought for the Council at Zanya, and on other battlefields besides, earning both her scars and the extra weight that came with advancing years.

As for Valmir Sark, he paid little attention. His interest lay more with ancestral finery . . . and likely in broaching Branghall’s wine cellars come Ascension. Josiri had heard enough of Sark to know he was present only to spare his family another scandal. The high-collared uniform might as well have been for show. Sark was too young to have fought against Katya’s rebellion. And as for him standing a turn on the Hadari border? The thought was laughable.

That left Anastacia, and her opinion carried no sway.

If only Calenne were there. She’d always had more success in dealing with the Council’s emissaries, and more patience. Where in Lumestra’s name was she? She’d promised.

Josiri swallowed his irritation. He’d enough enemies without adding his sister to the roster.

“The portrait remains,” he said. “This is my house. I’ll thank you to remember that.”

Makrov’s wispy grey eyebrows knotted. “Were it up to me, I’d allow it. Truly I would. But the Council insists. Katya Trelan brought nothing but division and strife. Her shadow should not mar Ascension.”

Only the slightest pause between the words imbued challenge. Josiri’s self-control, so painstakingly fortified before the meeting, slipped a notch. He shook off Anastacia’s restraining hand and took another step.

Yanda’s lips tightened to a thin, bloodless streak. Her hand closed meaningfully about the pommel of her sword. Sark gazed on with parted mouth and the first spark of true interest.

“It is my hope,” said Josiri, “that my mother’s presence will serve as a message of unity.”

Makrov stared up at the portrait. “I applaud your intent. But the law-less are not quelled by gestures, but by strong words, and stronger action.”

“I’ve given what leadership I can.”

“I know,” said Makrov. “I’ve read reports of your speeches. I’d like to hear one for myself. Tomorrow at noon?”

It was an artful twist of the knife. “If you wish.”

“Excellent.” He raised his voice. “Governor Yanda. You’ll ensure his grace isn’t speaking to an empty square? I’m sure Captain Sark will be delighted to assist.”

“Of course, my lord,” said Yanda. “And the portrait?”

Makrov locked gazes with Katya Trelan’s dead stare. “I want it taken down and burned. Her body is ash. Let her spirit join it. I can think of no stronger message of unity.”

“I won’t do it,” Josiri said through gritted teeth.

“Yes, you will.” Makrov sighed. “Your grace. Josiri. I entertained hopes that you’d lead your people out of the past. But the Council’s patience is not infinite. They may decide upon another exodus if there’s anything less than full cooperation.”

Exodus. The word sounded harmless. The reality was punishment meted out for a rebellion fifteen years in the past; families divided, stolen children shipped north to toil as little more than slaves. Makrov sought to douse a fire with tinder.

“Your mother’s memory poisons you. As it poisons your people.” Makrov set his hands on Josiri’s shoulders. “Let her go. I have.”

But he hadn’t. That was why Makrov remained the Council’s chief emissary to the Southshires, despite his advancing years and expanding waistline. His broken heart had never healed, but Katya Trelan lay fifteen years beyond his vengeance. And so he set his bitterness against her people, and against a son who he believed should have been his.

Makrov offered an avuncular smile. “You’ll thank me one day.” Josiri held his tongue, not trusting himself to reply. Makrov strode

away, Sark falling into step behind. Yanda hesitated a moment before following.

“Tomorrow at noon, your grace. I look forward to it.” Makrov spoke without turning, the words echoing along the rafters. Then he was gone.

Josiri glanced up at his mother’s portrait. Completed a year before her death, it captured to perfection the gleam of her eyes and the inscrutable perhaps-mocking, maybe-sympathetic smile. At least, Josiri thought it did. Fifteen years was a long time. He saw little of himself in his mother’s likeness, but then he’d always been more akin to his father. The same unruly blond hair and lantern jaw. The same lingering resentment at forces beyond his control.

He perched on the edge of High Table and swallowed his irritation. He couldn’t afford anger. Dignity was the cornerstone of leadership, or so his mother had preached.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “my father told me that people are scared and stupid more than they are cruel. I thought he’d handed me the key to some great mystery. Now? The longer I spend in Makrov’s company, the more I suspect my father told me what he wished were true.”

Anastacia drew closer. Her outline blurred like vapour, as it always did when her attention wandered. Like her loose tangle of snow-white curls and impish features, the robes of a Trelan seneschal were for show. A concession. Josiri wasn’t sure what Anastacia’s true form actually was. Only black, glossy eyes – long considered the eyes of a witch, or a demon, bereft of iris and sclera – offered any hint.

The Council’s proctors had captured her a year or so after the Battle of Zanya. Branghall, already a prison in all but name, had become her new home shortly after. Anastacia spoke often of what she’d done to deserve Tressian ire. The problem was, no two tales matched.

In one, she’d seduced and murdered a prominent councillor. In another, she’d instead seduced and murdered that same councillor’s husband. A third story involved ransacking a church. And then there was the tale about a choir of serenes, and indecency that left the holy women’s vows of chastity in tatters. After a dozen such stories, ranging from ribald to horrific, Josiri had stopped asking.

But somewhere along the line, they’d become friends. More than friends. If Makrov ever learned how close they were, it wouldn’t be the gallows that awaited Josiri, but the pyre.

Pallid wisps of light curled from Anastacia’s arched eyebrow. “The archimandrite is foolish in the way only clever men are. As for afraid? If he wasn’t, you’d not be his prisoner.”

Josiri snorted. “My mother casts a long shadow. But I’m not her.” “No. Your mother lost her war. You’ll win yours.” “Flatterer.”

The eyebrow twitched a fraction higher. “Isn’t that a courtier’s function?”

Genuine confusion, or another of Anastacia’s little jokes? It was always hard to be sure. “In the rest of the Republic, perhaps. In the Southshires, truth is all we can afford.”

“If you’re going to start moping, I’d like to be excused.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Josiri’s mouth. “If you don’t show your duke a little more respect, he might have you thrown from the manor.” Anastacia sniffed. “He’s welcome to try. But these stones are old, and the Council’s proctors made a thorough job of binding me to them.

You’ll fail before they do.”

“You forget, I’m a Trelan. I’m stubborn.”

“And where did stubbornness get your mother? Or your uncle, for that matter?”

Josiri’s gaze drifted back to his mother’s portrait. “What would she do?” “I doubt she’d put a mere thing, no matter how beautiful, before the lives of her people.” She shrugged. “But she was a Trelan, and some-one once told me – though I can’t remember who – that Trelans are

stubborn.”

“And none more than she,” said Josiri. “I don’t want to give up the last of her.”

Anastacia scratched at the back of her scalp – a mannerism she’d picked up off one of the servants in her frequent forays to the kitchens.

Her appetites were voracious – especially where the manor’s wine cellar was concerned.

“Might I offer some advice, as one prisoner to another?” “Of course.”

“Burn the painting. Your mother’s legacy is not in canvas and oils, but in blood.”

The words provoked a fresh spark of irritation. “Calenne doesn’t seem to think so.”

Anastacia offered no reply. Josiri couldn’t blame her for that. This particular field was well-furrowed. And besides, good advice was good advice. Katya Trelan had died to save her family. That was her true legacy.

“I should tell her how things went,” he said. “Do you know where she is?”

“Where do you think?” Anastacia’s tone grew whimsical to match her expression. “For myself, I might rearrange the window shutters on the upper floor. Just in case some helpful soul’s watching? One who might be agreeable to expressing your annoyance at the archimandrite where you cannot?”

Josiri swallowed a snort of laughter. Regardless of what his mother would have done about the painting, this she would approve of. Humiliation repaid in kind.

“That’s a grand idea.”

Anastacia sniffed again. “Of course it is. Shall we say nightfall?” That ran things close, but the timing should work. Makrov was due

to hold celebration in Eskavord’s tiny church at dusk. Afterwards, he’d make the long ride back to the fortress at Cragwatch. It all depended on whether Crovan’s people were keeping watch on the shutters.

Still, inaction gained nothing.

Josiri nodded. “Nightfall it is.”

Each creak of the stairs elicited a fearful wince, and a palm pressed harder against rough stone. Josiri told himself that the tower hadn’t endured generations of enthusiastic winds just to crumble beneath his own meagre weight. He might even have believed it, if not for that almost imperceptible rocking motion. In his great-grandfather’s time, the tower had been an observatory. Now the roof was a nest of fallen beams, and the walls stone teeth in a shattered jaw.

At least the skies were clear. The vistas almost held the terror at bay, fear paling before beauty. The town of Eskavord sprawled across the east-ern valley, smoke dancing as the Ash Wind – so named for the cinders it gusted from the distant Thrakkian border to the south – brushed the slopes of Drannan Tor. Beyond the outermost farms sprawled the eaves of Davenwood. Beyond that, further east, the high town walls of Kreska nestled in the foothills of the Greyridge Mountains. All of it within a day’s idle ride. Close at hand, and yet out of reach.

But it paid not to look too close. You might see the tabarded soldiers patrolling Eskavord’s streets, or the boarded-up houses. The foreboding gibbets on Gallows Hill. Where Josiri’s Uncle Taymor had danced a final jig – where his mother had burned, her ashes scattered so Lumestra could not easily resurrect her come the light of Third Dawn. It was worse in the month of Reaptithe. Endless supply wagons crept along the sunken roadways like columns of ants, bearing the Southshires’ bounty north.

Duke Kevor Trelan had never been more popular with his people than when he called for secession. The Council had been quick to respond. Josiri still recalled the bleak Tzadas-morning the summons had arrived at Branghall, backed by swords enough to make refusal impossible. It was the last memory he had of his father. But the Council had erred. Duke Kevor’s execution made rebellion inevitable.

Another gust assailed the tower. His panicked step clipped a fragment of stone. It ricocheted off the sun-bleached remnant of a wooden beam and clattered out over the edge.

“I suppose your demon told you where I was?”

Calenne, as usual, perched on the remnants of the old balcony – little more than a spur of timber jutting at right angles to a battered wall. Her back to a pile of rubble, she had one foot hooked across her knee. The other dangled out over the courtyard, three storeys and forty feet below. A leather-bound book lay open across her lap, pages fluttering.

“Her name is Anastacia.”

“That’s not her name.” The wind plucked a spill of black hair from behind Calenne’s ear. She tucked it back into place. “That’s what you call her.”

Calenne had disliked Anastacia from the first, though Josiri had never been clear why, and the passage of time had done little to heal the one-sided divide. Anastacia seldom reciprocated the antipathy, though whether that was because she considered herself above such things, or did so simply to irritate Calenne, Josiri wasn’t sure.

“Because that’s her wish. I don’t call you Enna any longer, do I?” Blue eyes met his then returned to the book. “What do you want?” Josiri shook his head. So very much like their mother. No admission

of wrong, just a new topic.

“I thought you’d be with me to greet Makrov.”

She licked a fingertip and turned the page. “I changed my mind.” “We were discussing the arrangements for your wedding. Or do you

no longer intend to marry at Ascension?”

“That’s why I changed my mind.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

A rare moment of hesitation. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I see.” Steeling himself, Josiri edged closer. “What are you reading?” “This?” Calenne stared down at the book. “A gift from Kasamor. The
Turn of Winter, by Iugo Maliev. I’m told it’s all the rage in Tressia.” “Any good?”

“If you admire a heroine who lets herself be blown from place to place like a leaf on the wind. It’s horrendously fascinating. Or fascinatingly horrendous. I haven’t decided yet.” She closed the book and set it on her knee. “How did the meeting go?”

“I’m to make a speech tomorrow, on the topic of unity.” She scowled. “It went that badly?”

“I didn’t have my sister there to charm him,” Josiri replied. “And . . . he reacted poorly to mother’s portrait.” No sense saying the rest. Calenne wouldn’t understand.

She sighed. “And now you know why I stayed away. If Makrov reacts like that to Katya’s image . . . I didn’t want complications. I can’t afford them. And I do want this marriage.”

Josiri didn’t have to ask what she meant. Katya in oils was bad enough. Her likeness in flesh and blood? Even with Calenne at her most demure and charming – a rarity – there was risk. With every passing year, his sister more resembled the mother she refused to acknowledge. Perhaps she’d been right to stay away.

“You think Makrov has the power to have it annulled?”

She shrugged. “Not alone. But Kasamor’s mother isn’t at all pleased at the match. I’m sure she’s allies enough to make trouble.”

“Kasamor would truly let her interfere?”

On his brief visits to Branghall, Kasamor had seemed smitten. As indeed had Calenne herself. On the other hand, Josiri had heard enough of Ebigail Kiradin, Kasamor’s mother, to suspect she possessed both the reach and influence to thwart even the course of true love, if she so chose.

“On his last visit, he told me that I was the other half of his soul. So no, I don’t believe he would. He’d sooner die, I think. And I . . . ” Calenne shook her head and stared down at the book. “It doesn’t matter.”

Josiri frowned. “What? What doesn’t matter?”

Calenne offered a small, resigned smile. “I’ve had bad dreams of late. The Black Knight. Waking up screaming doesn’t do wonders for my mood.”

The Black Knight. Viktor Akadra. The Phoenix-Slayer. The man who’d murdered their mother. He’d taken root in the dreams of a terri-fied six-year-old girl, and never let go. Josiri had lost track of how often in that first year he’d cradled Calenne as she’d slipped off to broken sleep.

“Is that why you’re back to hiding up here? He’ll not harm you, I promise.”

“I know he won’t.” Her shoulders drooped, and her tone softened. “But thanks, all the same.”

She set the book aside and joined him inside the tower proper. Josiri drew her into an embrace, reflecting, as he so often did, what a curious mix of close and distant they were. The decade between them drove them apart. He doubted he’d ever understand her. Fierce in aspect, but brittle beneath.

“The world’s against us, little sister. We Trelans have to stick together.”


Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward is published by Orbit Books and is out in paperback now.

Legacy of Ash - Matthew Ward

A shadow has fallen over the Tressian Republic.

Ruling families — once protectors of justice and democracy — now plot against one another with sharp words and sharper knives. Blinded by ambition, they remain heedless of the threat posed by the invading armies of the Hadari Empire.

Yet as Tressia falls, heroes rise.

Viktor Akadra is the Republic’s champion. A warrior without equal, he hides a secret that would see him burned as a heretic.

Josiri Trelanis Viktor’s sworn enemy. A political prisoner, he dreams of reigniting his mother’s failed rebellion.

And yet Calenne Trelan, Josiri’s sister, seeks only to break free of their tarnished legacy; to escape the expectation and prejudice that haunts the family name.

As war spreads across the Republic, these three must set aside their differences in order to save their home. Yet decades of bad blood are not easily set aside. And victory — if it comes at all — will demand a darker price than any of them could have imagined.

Blogging birthday

Espresso Coco was brought into this world on 30th March 2009.

Happy eleventh birthday, little blog!

Of course I actually started blogging on 14th March 2003 over at Livejournal, so I’ve been blogging for over seventeen years. My LJ has over ten thousand blog entries over that time. I made nigh-on 35 thousand comments and received over 62 and a half thousand comments.

This is all pre-Twitter, of course. A goodly proportion of those posts and comments are what would happen in a regular day on Twitter now, so it’s probably not as impressive as it sounds.

Still, 10k posts, plus the 850 or so on here make it closer to twelve thousand little nuggets of thought spilled out onto the internet.

I miss the LJ days and the sense of community there.

Wonder how long it’ll take me to get up to a thousand on espresso coco?

Will you still be here? Will it still be mainly book reviews? Or something different?

Question, for those still reading. Leave me a comment about where we met online or in real life. Was it on LJ? Twitter? or somewhere else?

I’d love to know. And thanks for sticking around.

Books of the year 2019: crime & thriller

We’ve had the list of favourite sci-fi and fantasy, now it’s the turn of crime & thrillers. Again, in no particular order, here we go!

Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Rapidly becoming one of my favourite Scottish authors, Doug Johnstone is back with Breakers. A Scottish family drama. A taut crime story. Boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks blossoming romance. Puppies.

Check, check, check and yes, check. But take those simple ingredients and put them in the hands of Doug Johnstone and what you end up with is something truly special. If Michelin did stars for books, then Breakers would be wearing its star bright and proud.

Nothing Important Happened Today – Will Carver

Hoo boy, is this dark. I thought that Will Carver’s previous book, Good Samaritans was dark (and it most definitely is), but that’s like a little ray of sunshine on a bright spring morning compared with this, Carver’s latest. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. And I read a *lot*.

Little Siberia – Antti Tuomainen

A new book by Antti Tuomainen is always exciting, and Little Siberia is no exception. Told with Tuomainen’s signature wit, Little Siberia is another slice of brilliance from the King of Helsinki Noir. He’s got a lovely flair for character, and the inhabitants of Hurmevaara are a motley bunch, beautifully drawn. But characters alone cannot make a story, so we have a splendidly twisty black comedy to tie everything together.

The July Girls – Phoebe Locke

Just stunningly good. A serial killer story with a twist, told from the point of view of Addie, a young girl caught up in a swirl of events. I’ve deliberately cut part of the blurb from Goodreads as I think this is one of those books that you want to go into knowing as little as possible, and find out for yourself what makes Addie’s story so unforgettable.

I polished off The July Girls in a couple of hours. Impossible to put down, with a truly different spin on the psychological crime thriller.

Cold Desert Sky – Rod Reynolds

Rod Reynolds proved with his first two books that he has a deft hand at conjuring up small-town Americana. Here he turns that hand to the larger canvas of ’40s Los Angeles and Las Vegas and again we’re sucked into the murky underworld of the mob. Reynolds has a real gift for place and atmosphere, and you almost feel that should you be dropped into Yates’ world, you could find your way around. Not that the California of Charlie Yates is somewhere you’d particularly want to be, not with someone as connected as Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel on the loose…

The Puppet Show (Washington Poe, #1) – M.W. Craven

I bought The Puppet Show following a load of my bookblogger friends raving about it. Serial killer, dysfunctional detective pairing, sounds right up my alleyway.

They were right. I stayed up far too late one night on holiday powering through this book more or less in a single sitting (if you ignore the break to go get some food). A proper page-turner, this one!

Washington Poe (and what a great name *that* is) is summoned back from suspension to investigate a murder in his patch of Cumbria. The victim, as with the first two, has been burned alive. But this one has something carved into his chest. Carved when the victim was very much alive.

It’s the Poe/Tilly dynamic which makes this book shine, and speaking of which…

Black Summer (Washington Poe, #2) – M.W. Craven

A celebrity chef who definitely killed his daughter, and went to prison for it. But then she turns up, quite definitely alive (if not particularly well). And it was Poe who put him in prison for the murder. Could he have been wrong?

And then she goes missing again, and the evidence all points in one direction. Washington Poe, what have you done?

*claps hands excitedly* Shenanigans afoot! I love shenanigans. Especially when they’re as clever as this!

Worst Case Scenario – Helen Fitzgerald

I must confess that after the first dozen or so pages of Worst Case Scenario I wondered if this was really the book for me. I wasn’t sure if I could cope with Mary’s in-your-face approach to life and work. Borderline alcoholic, menopausal, obsessed with her awful clients, she’s quite the character.

I pressed on and was rewarded with a deliciously dark, delightfully un-PC, often downright hilarious tale of a Glaswegian probation officer’s last days in the job. Mary Shields grew on me with every page, and I found myself watching events unravel with a horrified cover-your-eyes what-will-happen-next sense of anticipation.

Short, sharp and not at all sweet, Worst Case Scenario is a book that’ll live with you for quite some time. Recommended.

The Furies – Katie Lowe

More magic here, of the witchy variety. I was torn between putting this in the crime/thriller section or the fantasy, but it feels right on this list.

A tightly-drawn portrait of a private girls school with secret societies and a mysterious teacher. Oh, and a murder. Though the murdered girl went missing months ago…

Splendidly creepy, The Furies is a book which will keep you up long past the witching hour trying to get to the bottom of what happened at Elm Hollow Academy.

The Neighbour – Fiona Cummins

Told over the course of a few days over the long, hot, sticky summer of 2018, The Neighbour is wonderfully atmospheric, and not a little claustrophobic in places. The cast of neighbours on The Avenue are an intriguing bunch, and you’re never quite sure who to suspect, though you’ll end up questioning what you think about pretty much all of them along the way.

Loved it from the first page to the last. Very highly recommended

Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

I read a lot of crime books. Some are good, some are great. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Call Me Star Girl is tautly written, cunningly plotted and twistier than a curly wurly.

Louise Beech has crafted a beautifully dark little tale, with a creeping sense of menace that leaves you wondering if you locked the doors. You might want to go and check. You never know who might be lurking outside.

Highly recommended.

The Lost Man – Jane Harper

The Lost Man is a lovely slow burn of a mystery, leaving you with the dust of the Outback under your nails. Jane Harper has a wonderful ability to evoke the essence of a place and here she really shows off that skill to magnificent effect. You really feel the atmosphere here, the dust-soaked landscape, the incessant sun, the constant knife-edge balance between life and death.

And the death here is one of those properly splendid whodunnits. A man is found next to a remote grave, a circle etched into the sand as he’s struggled to follow the meagre shade whilst slowly dying of exposure and thirst.

Why is he here? Why is a seasoned, experienced farmer, who knows the Outback like the back of his hand, miles from the safety of his car? What has brought him to this place with none of the essential survival equipment that everyone carries by default in this unforgiving environment?


And coming up in 2020, a couple of stunners:

A Dark Matter – Doug Johnstone

Three women, grandmother, mother and daughter, investigating different strands of mysteries. Doug Johnstone with another cracker of a book. Look out for a fuller review in 2020!

Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton

Words just can’t do this justice. Put it on your list, pre-order it now, but brace yourself. You are not ready. Phenomenally good.

Books of the year 2019: sci-fi & fantasy

Ah, 2019. A great year for books. And here, in no particular order, are my favourite sci-fi and fantasy books.

Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle, #3) – Jay Kristoff

Darkdawn - Jay Kristoff

The review that I’m most proud of this year.

Go, read the books. Laugh, cry, blush at the smutty bits, and when you’re done, we can talk.

Talk about the stabby bits, the funny bits, the pirates and gladiators and assassins and cats made of shadows, of the mountain of murderers, the gods, everything.

Then we’ll go back to the books and read all about a girl called Mia. For we love her so very very much.

Thank you Jay, for giving us this, perfect ending.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Just stunningly good. Two time agents leave letters to each other up and down the time streams. Like nothing you’ll have read before.

Survivors (The Voices #3) – G.X. Todd

Defender is good. Hunted is great.

Survivors knocks it out of the park. Survivors takes us back in time to before the Voices, and we get to know a little more about how the world came to be in the state we find it in Defender. We also find out a lot more about the mysterious Pilgrim, and it was fascinating to learn his backstory. If you’ve not experienced The Voices books, get on it. Now.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

It’s an incredible concept – what if you could flip back in time a few moments to undo something you’ve said or done? What if you could keep trying, a second chance, a third? Heather Child’s second book (following the fabulous Everything About You) explores just that. Mind-bendingly brilliant.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

A mysterious murder at a magical school? Two of my very favourite things! Though we are very much not at *that* school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. And the murder is so *very* gruesome that even You Know Who might blanch at it. And yes, there’s a Chosen One.

Mixing magic with murder, this is most splendid, and highly recommended.

The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1) – Evan Winter

Fast, brutal, African-tinged epic fantasy featuring incredible swordfights, revenge, magic, demons and of course, dragons.

What’s not to like?

It’s so good. The battle scenes are incredibly well written and you feel that you’re deep in the action, dodging blades. The political skulduggery is suitably devious. The training montages are exciting and brutal, and there’s a real sense of menace and danger from the demon-inhabited underworld.

Billed as Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, The Rage of Dragons definitely has flavours of both, possibly more of the latter, but is most certainly its own concoction of epic fantasy.

Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) – Megan E. O’Keefe

Smart, slick sci-fi with brilliant characters and a cracking plot, Velocity Weapon is everything I love about science fiction. The worldbuilding is superb, spanning hundreds of years of political shenanigans and a planetbusting doomsday weapon wouldn’t be amiss in an Iain M. Banks novel.

If you like your space opera played out on the grandest, galaxy-spanning stage, with some brilliantly diverse characters and a whip-smart plot, then this book is for you.

Loved it. Ten sentient AIs out of ten. Hugely recommended.

The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

At face value The Raven Tower checks all the regular classic fantasy boxes. A son returns home from afar to take up his father’s post as ruler, only to find that his position has already been filled by his scheming uncle. A kingdom under threat. Mysterious machinations at court. Gods making alliances with mortals.

Yes, it’s a story of gods and power and what people will do to gain the latter and the price they’re willing to pay to do so. But Ann Leckie does this with such a deft hand that you’re left marvelling at how it’s all constructed. The way she plays with character and language and structure reminded me not a little of the skillful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #1) – Tamsyn Muir

This is one of my favourite books of the year. Weird, dark and often very funny, I loved it from the first page to the last.

It’s got everything – lesbian necromancers, a giant labyrinthine crumbling (possibly haunted, definitely deadly) house by the sea, swordfights, murder, blood, skeletons, locked rooms (which should *definitely* stay locked), mysterious mystics, battling Houses, daring cavaliers and a cluedo-esque whodunnit running throughout.

Hugely recommended. I can’t wait to see where the story takes us in Harrow the Ninth, which is out next year.

Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.

On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation … unless he drags her down too.

Well now. What do we have here?

A Scottish family drama? A taut crime story? Boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks blossoming romance? Puppies?

Check, check, check and yes, check. But take those simple ingredients and put them in the hands of Doug Johnstone and what you end up with is something truly special. If Michelin did stars for books, then Breakers would be wearing its star bright and proud.

Johnstone does characters and place exceptionally well, as evidenced in his previous book, Fault Lines. But here, his starkly contrasting aspects of Edinburgh are done so well. I love a book with a sense of place, and Breakers leaves you feeling that you could walk its streets (though you might want to avoid the estate that Tyler lives on) from the descriptions on the page.

The story bounces around Edinburgh, from the rough estates where Tyler and his family live to the more well-to-do suburbs where they go on the prowl for houses to break into.

Which is where Barry does something spectacularly stupid, even for him. And crime lord Deke Holt is on the hunt. It’s not going to end well…

And the characters! Tyler, young carer to his drug-addict mum and devoted older brother to his little sister Bean, forced into an impossible situation by his thuggish brother Barry. Forced to make some hard choices to survive, and to protect his beloved Bean.

Short, sharp and decidedly not sweet, Breakers is one of those books that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Hugely recommended.

Breakers by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Thanks as ever to Karen Sullivan for the copy of Doug’s book to review.

The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William.

William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

A new book by Claire North is always a welcome event. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but can rest assured that it’ll be different and thought-provoking.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is exactly that. Starting with a horrific, brutal event, we’re drawn into the life of Dr William Abbey and his quest to stay one step ahead of his pursuer, the shadow of a young boy murdered by white colonists in Natal. Abbey was present at the lynching, and cursed by the boy’s mother. Langa never stops, undeterred by mountain range or ocean, by desert or forest. He is utterly relentless.

As Langa grows closer, Abbey discovers that he can see the truth in people’s hearts. Close enough, and Abbey finds himself unable to stop himself from blurting those truths out to any and everyone who’ll listen.

If Langa catches up with Abbey, someone he loves will die, and the chase will begin again.

North does not spare us of the brutality of war or colonialism. Some sections of the book are hard to stomach, deliberately so. Man’s inhumanity to man is writ large across the pages of this book as Abbey travels from continent to continent.

Abbey finds himself at the attention of The Nineteen, a shadowy organisation who promise him salvation from his curse. He just needs to do a few little jobs for them first – go here and find out those truths, go there and find out some more. Always travelling, always moving, always pursued.

North’s writing is, as always, wonderful and easy to lose yourself in. In part I wanted to finish the book to find out what happens, but on another level I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere, the astonishing cast of characters that she conjures forth throughout the book.

If I had any criticism, it would be that the pace, relentless as it is for our titular William Abbey, flags ever so slightly around the halfway mark. But it recovers as we approach the final act, leading to an ending which…

Well, I’ll have to leave that to you, dear reader. Will Abbey find absolution for his sins? Will he escape his pursuer?

I’m not sure my words are doing this book justice – for a more thorough review I’d like to direct you to David at BlueBookBalloon who is far better than I am at putting such things in the perspective they deserve.

In short, The Pursuit of William Abbey is a work of an astonishing imagination. A Claire North book is always worth investigating, and if you do get this one, I’d love to hear what you think.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book to review, and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me onto the blog tour.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Red and Blue are two operatives on opposing sides of the Time War. Each determined that their side should be victorious, each travelling up and down the braids of time to make a subtle change here, or a little tweak there to encourage the desired outcome. Blue works for Garden, at one end of the time stream. Red is an agent of The Commandant, at the other. Each working for their own side, trying to foil the other.

So far, so sci-fi. But this is so much more. It is, at heart, a series of letters between the two agents. Letters written in the seeds of a plant, nurtured over hundreds of years. In the flow of a lava field, in the feathers of a goose, in knots tied in a sample of cloth, the missives grow increasingly abstract and lyrical.

Letters which start as taunts, which turn into mutual admiration, and ultimately into love letters the like of which have rarely been seen. The word poetic fails to do justice to the missives of these star- and time-crossed lovers.

Victoria Schwab (another of my favourite authors) summed up this book perfectly.

Holy shit this was good.

V.E. Schwab

It’s more than good. It’s astonishing. You should read it.

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is out now.

Huge thanks to @runalongwomble and @bluebookballoon for bringing this book to my attention

17 Church Row – James Carol

Three years ago, Nikki and Ethan Rhodes suffered a devastating loss when their four-year-old daughter Grace was tragically killed in a road accident. Ethan, a radio personality, escapes into work, leaving Nikki to care for their remaining child, Bella, who hasn’t spoken since that day.

Seeking a fresh start, the family moves into a revolutionary new house designed by renowned architect, Catriona Fisher. The house features a state-of-the-art security system, along with every amenity you could dream of.

For the Rhodes’ this is a chance to finally pick up the pieces and get on with their lives in a place where they feel totally safe.

But what if 17 Church Row isn’t the safe haven that they think it is?

I really enjoyed this – it’s a smart, sharp techno-thriller with an interesting cast of characters and an intriguing setting. We’re all becoming used to having smart assistants around these days – from ‘hey Siri’ to ‘OK Google’ or Alexa, help is but a request away. Phones by our side, smart devices in our homes, voice control over lights, heating, every part of modern-day living is gradually being handed over to our technological helpers.

The tech in 17 Church Row is a bit more futuristic, to almost Star Trek levels.

The Rhodes’ new home has this tech built-in. Alice is set up to deal with your every whim, almost before you realise what it is you need. Fancy a coffee? It’s already made. Pizza for tea? No problem, it’s been ordered from your favourite restaurant.

A traumatised young girl who’s lost her sister and can no longer talk? A family grieving for their daughter?

What can Alice do for them?

Hard to say much more without spoiling the fun, but it’s an engaging tale, which picks up momentum in the second half before rattling to a satisfying ending. A proper page-turner, lose yourself in the action. Great fun.

Thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.