The 3rd Woman – Jonathan Freedland

The 3rd Woman - paperback cover

SHE CAN’T SAVE HER SISTER

Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing lies and corruption. But she never thought she would be investigating her own sister’s murder.

SHE CAN’T TRUST THE POLICE

Madison refuses to accept the official line that Abigail’s death was an isolated crime. She uncovers evidence that suggests Abi was the third victim in a series of killings hushed up as part of a major conspiracy.

SHE CAN EXPOSE THE TRUTH

In a United States that now bows to the People’s Republic of China, corruption is rife – the government dictates what the ‘truth’ is. With her life on the line, Madison must give up her quest for justice, or face the consequences…

This is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his real name, having already had a successful career with five novels under his pen-name of Sam Bourne.

The 3rd Woman has a fascinating premise, the familiarity of the backdrop of LA jarringly set against the premise that Beijing has taken control after America has defaulted on its national debt. Part crime thriller whodunnit, part political conspiracy, the story plays out under a confident hand, tautly plotted and rattles along to be devoured in a couple of sittings. The plot twists and turns in a most satisfactory manner as truths are revealed and Madison digs deeper into her sister’s murder, which turns out to not be the first…

Madison Webb is a fantastic, well-realised heroine and feels fully fleshed-out, as does the family dynamic between her and her sisters. I loved her sheer bloody mindedness in getting to the truth behind her sister’s murder, going up against some seriously heavy hitters. There’s a real sense of danger and peril as Madison upsets the wrong people, with unpleasant consequences.

It’s crying out to made into a movie. The Chinese-dominated smoggy LA would make a brilliant backdrop to a series… Netflix, are you listening?

Now, who would play Madison…

Here’s an extract from chapter 7:

~~~~

Leo could see the mayor was on his last question. Quick check of the phone before take-off. He scrolled through his messages. One from an old friend.

Just heard. Can’t believe it.

Just heard what? He couldn’t stand it when people played enigmatic. Total power trip, lording over you the fact they had caught some nugget of knowledge that you lacked. He would not succumb. He would not send the words his pal wanted to hear: ‘Can’t believe what?’

It was bound to be about the food export story. There were new figures showing Californians were exporting so many of their staples – oranges, strawberries and avocados among others – they were running short themselves. He checked his watch. Yep, this was about the time the numbers were due for release.

But he checked Weibo to be sure. He scrolled through, but stopped short.

Tragic news about @maddywebbnews’s sister. Thoughts and prayers are with her family.

And then:

What a senseless waste of precious life. Hearts go out to @maddywebbnews #tragedy

That came with a link to an LA Times story:

Abigail Webb, 22, an elementary school teacher from North Hollywood, was found dead early Monday in what police now believe was a likely homicide. An LAPD spokesperson would give few details, but sources indicate the cause of death was a heroin overdose. Despite an initial examination of the dead woman’s apartment which could find no confirmed signs of forced entry, detectives say a later probe of the scene found damage suggesting a break-in. Ms Webb is the younger sister of the award-winning LA Times reporter, Madison Webb.

Leo read the words several times over, believing it less and less each time. He and Madison had been together for just short of a year, but he had seen Abigail at least a dozen times. She was the first member of her family Madison had let him meet. He liked her: she had all the fizzing energy of Madison and none of the taidu, the attitude. Perhaps a bit too wide-eyed for his tastes, but her enthusiasm was contagious. He and Maddy had been to see a show at the Hollywood Bowl on a double date with Abigail and a short-lived boyfriend, dropped soon afterwards. But once those two were up and dancing, Maddy and even Leo – usually too shy and world-weary for such things – had felt compelled to follow.

Now he thought about it, Madison was different around Abigail. The cynicism receded; she was gentle. She smiled more. In their moments together, the older looking out for the younger, he realized he had caught a glimpse of the mother Maddy might one day be – a thought which he had never articulated at the time and whose tenderness shocked him.

He read the weibs again. He was scrolling further down, as if he might see a message voiding the others, announcing a mistake. He kept scrolling.

‘Leo, you better shut that down. Take-off.’

He said nothing, but turned off the phone all the same and stared right ahead.

They were fully airborne, the plane straightened, before the mayor spoke. ‘You mind telling me what this is about? You look like shit.’ Getting no answer, he pushed on. ‘You’ve seen some numbers and you don’t know how to break it to me, is that it? This that Santa Ana focus group? I’m not worried. Wait till we’re on the air in—’

‘It’s nothing to do with the campaign.’

‘You don’t care about anything but the campaign, so tell me: what’s the problem?’

Leo turned his face to look at his boss for the first time. ‘There’s been a murder. Woman, early twenties, found dead in her apartment in North Hollywood. Suspected heroin over­dose.’

Berger hesitated, letting his eye linger, as if he were assessing a job applicant rather than his most trusted advisor. ‘OK.’

‘We need to get out ahead of this one, Mr Mayor. We have to make sure that this is investigated with the utmost thor­oughness.’ His own voice sounded strange to him, too formal.

‘We always do that, Leo.’

He tried to steady himself, took a sip from the water glass on the tray in front of him, which appeared to have arrived by magic: he had no memory of anyone giving it to him. He told himself to get a grip. Focus.

‘LAPD are only calling it a “likely” homicide. Which means they’ve got some doubts. But the victim’s sister’s a journalist. She’s going to be demanding answers. High-profile, award-winner, big following on Weibo. That means this case is going to be noticed. People are going to be watching the Department, the DA, to see how they handle it.’

‘Sure.’

‘And they’ll be watching you. You don’t want to be going into the summer with a big, unsolved murder on the books.’

‘So what’s your advice?’

‘I think that when we land your first call should be to the Chief of Police, ensure this case is a priority.’

‘As soon as we land, huh? That urgent.’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘Anything else you want to tell me?’

Leo turned back towards the window, the city below now little more than a blur. He pictured Abigail and then he pictured Madison. He shook his head.

‘Anything else you ought to tell me, Leo?’

‘No.’ He paused. ‘Like what?’

‘You sure you don’t have a conflict of interest here?’

Leo hesitated, so Berger spoke again. ‘I know who the victim of this murder is, Leo. The police department of this city – sorry, of the area – do still talk to me. I know her sister is your ex, so there’s no need to bullshit me, OK?’ His gaze lingered into a stare until eventually he looked away, towards the window, watching the earth below swallowed up by clouds. When he turned back, he was wearing an expression Leo had not seen before, one that unnerved him. ‘As it happens, I agree with your advice,’ the mayor said. ‘We need to get out in front on this one. In fact, I’d go further. You need to make this story go away. And, most important of all, you need to keep me out of it.’

~~~~

The 3rd Woman is out now in paperback from HarperCollins.
JFBLOGTOURBANNER

disclaimer: Many thanks to @fictionpubteam from HarperCollins for the advance copy of Jonathan’s book for review. The opinions in the review are mine.

Tracer – Rob Boffard

Tracer - Rob Boffard

Our planet is in ruins. Three hundred miles above its scarred surface orbits Outer Earth: a space station with a million souls on board. They are all that remain of the human race.

Darnell is the head of the station’s biotech lab. He’s also a man with dark secrets. And he has ambitions for Outer Earth that no one will see coming.

Prakesh is a scientist, and he has no idea what his boss Darnell is capable of. He’ll have to move fast if he doesn’t want to end up dead.

And then there’s Riley. She’s a tracer – a courier. For her, speed is everything. But with her latest cargo, she’s taken on more than she bargained for.

A chilling conspiracy connects them all.

The countdown has begun for Outer Earth – and for mankind.

Tracer is a *huge* amount of fun, a thrill ride of action-packed sci-fi that you don’t see too often. It’s set on a massive space station containing the remnants of the human race, a million souls crammed into an 18-mile long metal ring. It’s tense and claustrophobic, overcrowded and dirty out there in space, and you feel every bit of it.

The action comes thick and fast and frantic. Right from the start you’re along for the ride with Riley and the rest of the Devil Dancers, a crew of tracers – free-runner couriers who transport cargo around Outer Earth. Rob has a deft ability to put you slap-bang front and centre of the action as the crew move around the station and you get a real feel of tension as the story unfolds, with the viewpoint shifting from Riley to Darnell, Prakesh and the others.

I loved the characters and the setting. Riley is a fantastic kick-ass free-running heroine. Parkour in space – what’s not to like? Darnell is suitably evil as our bad guy and there are plans within plans within plans…

Tracer is due to be published by Orbit Books on 16th July 2015.

I highly recommend picking it up.

[Edit] Met up with Rob on his signing tour when he came to Leeds. He brought the sunshine with him, which was nice.

He also assures me that the follow-up to Tracer will be turned all the way up to 11…Rob Boffard

We Shall Inherit The Wind – Gunnar Staalesen

“He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”
~ Proverbs

We Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.indd

1998. Varg Veum sits by the hospital bedside of his long-term girlfriend Karin, whose life-threatening injuries provide a deeply painful reminder of the mistakes he’s made. Investigating the seemingly innocent disappearance of a wind-farm inspector, Varg Veum is thrust into one of the most challenging cases of his career, riddled with conflicts, environmental terrorism, religious fanaticism, unsolved mysteries and dubious business ethics. Then, in one of the most heart-stopping scenes in crime fiction, the first body appears…
A chilling, timeless story of love, revenge and desire, We Shall Inherit the Wind deftly weaves contemporary issues with a stunning plot that will leave you gripped to the final page. This is Staalesen at his most thrilling, thoughtprovoking best.

I’ve been on a bit of a Nordic Noir kick recently thanks to Karen at Orenda Books, and when I was asked if I’d like to take part in the blog tour for Gunnar Staalesen’s We Shall Inherit the Wind, I jumped at the chance.

This is the first of Staalesen’s books that I’ve read, though it appears he’s somewhat better known in Norway – he’s written over 20 titles which have been published in 24 countries, and he’s sold over four million copies. There have been twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels. I’ll have to track them down!

The story starts, as it were, at the end. Varg Veum is at his girlfriend’s bedside. Something terrible has happened and we’re about to find out what. We jump back into a missing person case where Varg has been called in to investigate the whereabouts of Mons Maeland. by his wife. The story unfolds like an origami rose, slowly unveiling more and more layers as we’re drawn deeper into the mystery. Where is Maeland? What’s the link between his disappearance and the proposed wind farm over on the small island of Brennøy?

The mystery is gradually revealed and, as with all great crime stories, each fresh revelation fills in another facet of the picture. Rumours are confirmed, secrets uncovered and a *lot* of coffee is consumed. I thought that *I* drank a lot of coffee, but one thing I’ve noticed about the nordic crime scene is how much coffee they drink!

At heart it’s a story of relationships, and how far people are willing to go to preserve the natural habitat and the consequences of their actions. Families and community are neatly portrayed and dissected by the lone wolf, Varg. Tidbits of information are teased out of people, revealing an unsettling dark side to a lot of the characters.

Staalesen has been called the Norwegian Chandler and Veum is your quintessential private investigator. There’s even a life-sized statue of Varg Veum in the centre of Bergen.

Gunnar with Varg Veum statue

I loved how his character developed through the course of the story. There have been other Varg Veum books but the character is so strong and the story so well crafted that you don’t feel you’re missing out by starting with this book. I’d love to read more and luckily the next instalments in the Varg Veum series – Where Roses Never Die and No One Is So Safe in Danger – will be published by Orenda Books in 2016 and 2017.  Sign me up!

Many thanks must go to Karen at Orenda Books for my review copy.

The blog tour continues tomorrow with Tracy Shephard over at Postcard reviews.

We Shall Inherit the Wind Blog Tour

K is for Kung Fu Panda

Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend.

The second animated film of the A-Z (it won’t be the last). Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008, scores a respectable 7.6 stars on IMDb and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, though that went to the wonderful Wall-E.

DreamWorks Animation had always been in second place to Pixar when it came to making great movies. They’d produced some great films – Shrek, Madagascar are the standouts – and some good films, but the majority of their output was firmly in the ‘fine’ category.

Kung Fu Panda belongs firmly in the ‘great’ category. When I first heard about it, the idea of animals doing kung fu didn’t really inspire me, but I found myself in the cinema one rainy saturday afternoon with the kids and walked out at the end with a huge grin on my face.

What they’d done was not make a film about CG animals that did kung fu, but make a kung fu movie which happened to feature CG animals. There’s a crucial difference between the two, something which co-director John Stephenson understood:

“Let’s really make sure that our kung fu is as cool as any kung fu ever done, so that we can take our place in that canon and make sure it’s a beautiful movie, because great martial arts movies are really beautiful-looking movies and then let’s seen if we can imbue it with real heart and emotion. We kind of hoped that maybe when people see the movie, they’ll be surprised that they get a bit more movie than they may be expecting from the title.”

And the kung fu is really really good.

The story itself is a classic hero’s journey – bumbling noodle chef and kung fu fanatic Po (voiced by Jack Black on fine form) finds himself fulfilling an ancient prophecy when he’s chosen as the Dragon Warrior by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), much to the consternation of the legendary Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) and especially Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who is given the job of training the lazy panda…
Chaos ensues. Evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison and comes to seek the Dragon Warrior. Can Po, Master Shifu and the Furious Five save the day?

The look of the film is simply gorgeous. It’s easily one of the most beautiful films which DreamWorks Animation have ever produced, and is on par with Pixar’s output. It’s a great story, with some wonderful set pieces – Tai Lung’s escape from the seemingly escape-proof prison is gorgeously done, as are all the fight scenes and the interactions between all the main characters.

It’s just a lovely little kung fu film. Highly recommended.

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park

Wonders of Life app

Recently I was approached to ask if I’d like to review the new Wonders of Life app for the iPad.

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life
Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life

It’s from the same lot who did the Wonders of the Universe app and contains a ton of interesting (and educational!) stuff – over thirty creatures and habitats, from great white sharks to kangaroos, the octopus to the scorpion, as well as looking into microbes and molecules.

The app is great fun and really easy to use. From the overview of the earth you can zoom in on various areas to find out more about the flora and fauna. Tap again and move in closer, to get a better look at butterflies and monkeys, kangeroo eyeballs and chameleon DNA, with the ubiquitous and perennially youthful Brian Cox providing his usual enthusiastic narration.

Wonders of Life - Kangaroo

Apparently there are over 2 hours of HD video included in the app itself, largely made up of short clips of either the animals or habitats or Brian enthusing about them! I’ve not had a chance to explore it fully, but look forward to using it as an interactive tool with the kids when it comes to homework time.

Shark!
Shark!

They call it ‘a stunning 3d guide to the majesty of nature’, and they’re not wrong. I think it’ll be a really useful toolnto poke around in and see what wonders they can discover.

Here’s a short video about the app & you can see just how good it looks!

It’s available on iTunes (sorry, Android users!) and at the moment it’s £3.99
Wonders of Life app on iTunes

Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been a huge fan of Chuck’s blog for many years, but this is the first book of his that I’ve read.

It’s stunning.

It grabs you by the throat from the very start, and refuses to let go. The writing is gritty, dark and visceral – wonderfully-realised, deeply interesting and complex characters doing all manner of things to each other.

Miriam Black is a great protagonist, and I love the way we get flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative. And what a story – Miriam’s special talent is to be able to see how you die – all it takes is a touch of skin on skin. So we know where the story is headed right from the start, and the players of the game are all inexorably being drawn to that point in time. Can they get off the ride? Do they *want* to?

It’s not a book for everyone. If you’ve not come across Chuck’s writing before, be warned that it’s not PG-friendly. Language and imagery is used and bruised, and is not for the faint-hearted.

But, if you’re up for the ride, strap yourself in. Fantastic stuff.

View all my reviews

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones – review

I’ve owned a fair number of in-ear headphones over the years from various different companies. Sennheiser, Shure, Klipsch, I’ve tried them all.

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones

None of them come even close to the sound that the MA750 from British headphone company RHA produce. The difference is quite simply astonishing – it’s as if I’d been listening to music through a doorway, with a curtain pulled across.

Put these earbuds in and the curtain comes back and suddenly you’re in the room with the musicians. The sound stage expands. Instruments and voices take on a new level of clarity and you realise you’ve been listening to music through a fog all these years.

I’ve found myself digging through my music collection looking for favourite tracks to give another listen. There’s a new edge to the sound where previously things were lost on other headphones. Bass notes in particular are picked up well (and the frequency response goes down to 16Hz, something unusual for in-ear headphones in my experience), but these headphones perform brilliantly across the range, with a lovely clean, clear response from the lows to the highs. I’ve been hearing new things in my music collection, things I didn’t even realise I was missing.

The build quality is superb too – the headphones are made from stainless steel and feel lovely and solid in your hand, yet not heavy in your ears. As the review on HuffPost Tech said, they

…feel like something you’ve pulled off the side of a space shuttle when no one was looking.

The cord goes up and over your ear, which I’ve always preferred – this cuts out the cable noise you get when in-ear headphones trail the wire straight down. The curved wires on the MA750s have a reinforced plastic to keep the curve in place and protect the cable, a feature which I really liked.

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones  3.5mm audio jack

They just smack of quality, from the industrial metal joins where the left/right cables meet, to the spring at the headphone jack end to protect the cable. And the cable itself feels heavy-duty and robust too – steel reinforced and oxygen-free, according to the RHA website. These are no lightweights.

Sound isolation is also great – plug them in and it’s just you and the music. Fellow commuters annoying you with the tinny beat of their iDevice earbuds? No longer a problem. Just be careful crossing roads!
They come with a load of extra ear tips – single and double-flanged as well as memory foam ones loaded into a nice stainless steel holder and a carry case.

I was fortunate enough to receive a pair to review. But, should the worst happen and I lose these headphones? I’d buy another pair without a second’s hesitation.

And they’re backed up with a three year warranty.

A seriously nice bit of audio kit and worth every penny. They look and feel like they should cost twice the price.

Don’t put up with crappy earphones you got with your mp3 player or phone. Do your ears a favour and buy a pair of these.