Force of Nature – Jane Harper

Published by Little, Brown, February 2018
Source: review copy
When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path.

But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

Jane Harper’s first book, The Dry, was one of my favourite books of 2017, and featured highly in my criminally good books list of the year. I’ve pestered an awful lot of people to read it over the course of the year, and have been delighted to see friends reading it, and even moreso to find out that they too loved it.

I’m pleased to say that with Force of Nature, Jane Harper has delivered another cracking read. It’s a different beast, moving from the arid, drought-ravaged tight-knit farming community of Kiewarra to an outward bounds retreat in the rain-drenched forests of the Giralang Range. The setting couldn’t be more different, but the sense of place is still vividly drawn.

It’s the second outing for Harper’s policeman, Aaron Falk, and this time he’s helping look for a missing hiker who’s playing a key role in an ongoing investigation into underhand goings-on at the firm she works for. Five women set out for a weekend of corporate-sponsored teambuilding, but only four return. What exactly happened out there, and where is Alice? Only four women return, and each of them has a slightly different story.

I really liked the way that Harper layers the story in Force of Nature, starting with a mysterious middle-of-the-night phone call from Alice to Falk which drags him and his partner Carmen up to the retreat at the head of the trail where the women set off. We then jump back a couple of days to the start of the weekend, where the five women from very different backgrounds set off, some more reluctantly than others, on their adventure. The story plays out like this – Falk and Carmen investigating in the present, and the women’s story in flashbacks, each time uncovering a little more of what happened.

Force of Nature kept me guessing right up to the last – a couple of times I thought I’d called it, only for another sliver of information to upset my theory. It didn’t quite hit the lofty heights of The Dry for me, but Force of Nature is a splendid read, and I highly recommend it. It goes without saying (but I’m going to anyway) that if you’ve not read The Dry, you should get that too!

Force of Nature is published by Little, Brown and is out now.
Many thanks to @LittleBrownUK and @kimberleynyam for having me on the blog tour.

You can find Jane Harper on Twitter @janeharperautho

Slow Horses – Mick Herron


Published by John Murray
Source: own copy
Slough House is a dumping ground for British intelligence agents who’ve screwed up a case in any number of ways—by leaving a secret file on a train or blowing a surveillance. River Cartwright, one such “slow horse,” is bitter about his failure and about his tedious assignment transcribing cell phone conversations.

When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself.

Is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone has his own agenda.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, so when I saw him on one of the panels at Hull Noir last year, I took the opportunity to pick up a copy and get him to sign it for me.

Slow Horses opens with a scene at King’s Cross station, where we follow River Cartwright in pursuit of a suspect. It’s an incredible opening, with a deft hand for detail and tension. What follows is the story of the ‘slow horses’, sidelined to the nondescript Slough House, each a failure of sorts, put out to pasture where they can cause the least harm.

Slough House is filled with some brilliant characters, not least their leader and chief misfit, the unforgettable Jackson Lamb. I’ve read a fair few thrillers and have never come across his like. Grumpy, sarcastic and almost entirely unpleasant, Lamb is a fabulous character who’ll grow on you over the course of the book, whilst still maintaining his gruff, unkempt and almost entirely unpleasant exterior. But there’s more going on beneath – Lamb is a smart, savvy character who will quite happily eat you for breakfast before breaking wind and sloping off for an actual breakfast.

The story is also first-rate – a young man is kidnapped and his captors are threatening to broadcast his beheading live on the internet. ‘Five’ at Regents Park are on the case, but will Lamb and his slow horses pip them at the post?

Gritty, dark and shot through with a beautifully dark wit, Slow Horses is one not to be missed. Utterly brilliant, and I’ll be racing through the rest of Mick Herron’s back catalogue to get ready for book five, London Rules which is out now.

Deep Blue Trouble – Steph Broadribb

Published by Orenda Books, January 2018
Source: Review copy
Single-mother Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson’s got an ocean of trouble on her hands. Her daughter Dakota is safe, but her cancer is threatening a comeback, and Lori needs JT—Dakota’s daddy and the man who taught Lori everything—alive and kicking. Problem is, he’s behind bars, and heading for death row. Desperate to save him, Lori does a deal, taking on off-the-books job from shady FBI agent Alex Monroe. Bring back on-the-run felon, Gibson “The Fish” Fletcher, and JT walks free. Following Fletcher from Florida to California, Lori teams up with local bounty hunter Dez McGregor and his team. But Dez works very differently to Lori, and the tension between them threatens to put the whole job in danger. With Monroe pressuring Lori for results, the clock ticking on JT’s life, and nothing about the Fletcher case adding up, Lori’s hitting walls at every turn. But this is one job she’s got to get right, or she’ll lose everything.

A couple of years ago I read Steph Broadribb’s first book,  Deep Down Dead.  It made my Books of 2016 list, and I said at the time that it was

a *great* thriller, steeped in Americana with settings and characters which feel completely authentic and with a plot which insists that you don’t put it down.

I also said that I couldn’t wait to see what she came up with next. Which neatly leads us to Deep Blue Trouble (though there is another short story featuring our kick-ass bounty hunter heroine Lori, The Last Resort, which is also fabulous).

Deep Blue Trouble finds Lori with a mission from dodgy FBI agent Monroe – track down Gibson “The Fish” Fletcher before anyone else, let Monroe have a quiet five minutes with him, and the FBI will clear JT’s name. And Lori needs JT to stay alive for the sake of her daughter…

Nothing is ever quite that simple, leading Lori on a chase from Florida to San Diego and over the border into Mexico where she’ll need the help of Monroe’s other bounty hunter team, run by Dez McGregor.

Action-packed, no holds barred from the off, this second installment is another roller-coaster ride of action and adventure.

Steph Broadribb has a knack of giving you a sense of Americana, shown once again to great effect as Lori crosses the country, but she also comes up trumps again with some brilliant characters. I liked the way Lori and Dez rubbed up against each other, with their differing styles clashing as they hunt for Gibson. I particularly liked Bobby  Four Fingers! I hope we get to see him again. Lori works best alone though, and it’s where we see her figure stuff out and get stuff done that her character really shines. I loved Lori in Deep Blue Trouble, but here she’s given even more room to show off her skills.

If you love a good action thriller with brilliant characters, a real sense of place, and a great story, then I heartily recommend Deep Blue Trouble. And if you’ve not read Deep Down Dead, then what are you waiting for? Go get them both (with The Last Resort thrown in for good measure)!

I had the great pleasure of seeing Steph at the fantastic Hull Noir festival in November last year, both as part of the Brawlers & Bastards panel, and briefly to say hello and tell her how much I’d enjoyed her first book. If you get the chance to see Steph at a book event, I’d definitely recommend it. She’s appearing as part of the Orenda Roadshow (with lots of other brilliant Orenda authors) at Waterstones Liverpool on Monday 26th February, Waterstones Nottingham on 27th February and Northgate Methodist Church in Warwick on Wednesday, 28th February. If you’re in the area, get yourself along and say hello!

You can find Steph Broadribb on twitter @crimethrillgirl.

Many thanks to @OrendaBooks and @AnneCater for organising the blog tour.

Dark Pines – Will Dean

Published by Point Blank, January 2018
Source: Review copy
It’s week one of the elk hunt and the sound of gunfire is everywhere. Two hunters are found murdered in the forest, with their eyes missing. When Tuva Moodyson, a young deaf reporter on a small-time local paper, investigates the story that could make her career, she stumbles on a web of secrets. Are the murders connected to the unsolved Medusa killings twenty years ago? Can Tuva outwit the killer before she becomes the
next victim? Tuva must face her demons and venture deep into the woods to stop the murderer and write the story. And then get the hell out of Gavrik.

First book of the year, devoured over the course of a weekend, Dark Pines takes us deep into the immense forest of Utgard where a young reporter investigates the death of a hunter. Could it be connected to the infamous ‘Medusa murders’ of twenty years ago?

Regular readers will be aware that I love a book which has a real sense of place, and Dark Pines is just such a book. The pines of Utgard are superbly creepy, with a tangible sense of menace made all the scarier by its inhabitants. They’re a wonderfully odd bunch – the ghostwriter with a fascination for Tuva Moodyson’s deafness, the slightly (very) odd twins and their wooden trolls. The story follows Tuva as she investigates first one murder, and then another, drawing her deep into the forest. It’s not just the forest though – Gavrik is one of those small town, tightly-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, but everyone seems to have a secret. Can Tuva get to the bottom of the killings?

Tuva Moodyson is an interesting character – her deafness plays a key part in the story, but never feels forced or gimmicky for the sake of plot. She has a rugged determination in pursuit of the story which will give her a future outside Gavrik – I really liked her, and hope we get to see more of her investigations in the future. She’s just one of a set of great characters though, and the plot is artfully crafted, with the suspense ratcheting up notch by notch. Tuva’s fear of the forest is tangible – forests can be creepy at the best of times, but imagine a forest where you are unable to hear anything, knowing that there is someone out there with a rifle who could very well be taking aim right now.

Dark Pines is a splendid Noir, beautifully written and unsettling. Will Dean has come up with a brilliant character in Tuva Moodyson, and I’d love to see her again.

Highly recommended.

Dark Pines is published by @PtBlankBks and is out now. You can find Will Dean on twitter @Willrdean

Hydra – Matt Wesolowski

One cold November night in 2014, in a small town in the northwest of England, 21-year-old Arla Macleod bludgeoned her mother, stepfather and younger sister to death with a hammer, in an unprovoked attack known as the Macleod Massacre. Now incarcerated at a medium-security mental-health institution, Arla will speak to no one but Scott King, an investigative journalist, whose Six Stories podcasts have become an internet sensation.

King finds himself immersed in an increasingly complex case, interviewing five key witnesses and Arla herself, as he questions whether Arla’s responsibility for the massacre was as diminished as her legal team made out. As he unpicks the stories, he finds himself thrust into a world of deadly forbidden ‘games’, online trolls, and the mysterious black-eyed kids, whose presence seems to extend far beyond the delusions of a
murderess…

Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories was one of my books of 2017. In Hydra, we meet Scott King once more, and another of his Six Stories podcasts.

Hydra is a different beast to the first Six Stories. It’s darker and much, much spookier. If Nana Wrack gave you nightmares the first time round, the black-eyed children in Hydra might just keep you awake all night.

I love the concept behind Hydra and Six Stories – you get a look at the events of that fateful night through a series of perspectives, each one shedding a new light on what you’ve seen (or think you’ve seen before). There’s always a concern that with such a strong debut with such an original concept that the second time round it might feel less fresh, but Matt has pulled off another magic trick, deftly showing you just what he wants you to see, exactly when he wants you to see it. Hydra may follow the same structure as Six Stories, but is utterly original and astonishingly good.

I’ve recommended the original Six Stories to pretty much everyone since reading it. Save me the trouble and just go read Hydra now. It’s a finely crafted mystery with more than a hint of the supernatural oozing through the pages, with an entirely satisfying denouement which will make you want to read it again immediately.

I said last year that Six Stories would be on my Books of the Year list, and it was. I’m confident that Hydra will do the same for 2018’s list.

Hydra is published by Orenda Books and is out now in ebook, and in paperback January 15th.

You can find Matt Wesolowski on Twitter @concretekraken. Huge kudos to Mark Swan (@Kidethic) for another stunning cover.

Many thanks to @OrendaBooks and @AnneCater for organising the blog tour and inviting me along.

Books of 2017: Fantasy, scifi and all that other stuff part 1

Hello, lovely readers. I hope that you enjoyed my lists of top crime books (part 1: the honourable mentions, and part 2: the top five(ish). However, I know that not everyone loves crime books, and whilst I do, I also enjoy reading sci-fi and fantasy and dystopia and YA and other stuff.

So, here goes. Part 1, again with the honourable mentions. Cracking books! In no particular order…

Killing Gravity – Corey J. White (Tor, May 2017)

Killing Gravity is a kick-ass, whip-smart sci-fi short story/novella/novellette(?) which is a pure joy to read. It’s short, sharp and stunningly bloody, with a fiercely independent, void-damned spacewitch as the main protagonist. Echoes of Firefly abound, with a close-knit (albeit smaller) crew on a series of adventures as Mariam ‘Mars’ Xi goes on the hunt for vengeance. For such a short book, a *lot* gets crammed into the narrative.
The cast is refreshingly diverse and *interesting*, and it features what Warren Ellis described as ‘a cute space ferret of death’. Only tiny criticism would be that it was too short! The story, not the cute space ferret of death.

Strange Practice- Vivian Shaw (Orbit Books, July 2017)

Meet Dr Greta Helsing, medic to the… differently alive residents of London. She looks after the capital’s supernatural inhabitants, be they vampire or vampyre (and yes, there is a difference!), ghoul, mummy or demon. The trouble is, someone is going around killing people. And that simply will not do. Dr Helsing (her family dropped the ‘van’ many years ago) must join forces with some of her patients to sort it all out.

A splendid adventure, and the underlying mystery is nicely twisty, and Dr Helsing has a splendidly quirky coterie of undead friends to aid her on her quest and in her rather peculiar practice.

Jade City – Fonda Lee (Orbit Books, November 2017)

Described as “a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Godfather with magic and kung fu”, Jade City is all that and more. The magic system is both delightfully simple (jade gives its owner magical powers – the more jade the stronger the powers) and wonderfully complex. The worldbuilding is top-notch – it feels like a mishmash of a variety of different places – Hong Kong spring to mind, but with other far eastern islands layered on top, creating a unique, new-yet-familiar setting.

Similarly, the characters draw on the familiar – Yakuza, the Triads, and yes, The Godfather, but with its own unique polish. The level of detail in the world presented is fantastic – from the food, religion, clan power structures to the cars and weaponry – moon blades, and talon knives, jade giving the wearer powers, but too much in the wrong hands bringing the dreaded (and deadly) itches. The powers that Jade confers, giving us some splendid kung fu sequences. It’s all too easy to see how Jade City would rock on the big screen.

Blackwing, by Ed McDonald (Gollancz, July 2017)

I heard Ed speak at GollanczFest in November, talking about swords and fantasy and stuff (notably bringing a landmine to a fantasy weapon-off against a dragon, a spaceship, Abhorsen’s bells and, amusingly, a comedy boxing glove filled with a horseshoe. One of those times where you *really* had to be there). I picked up Blackwing soon afterwards and cor, what a book. Brutal, dark, and bloody, it’s the story of one man’s battle to escape his destiny. It’s dark and it’s funny in places, and has some of the most imaginative, terrifying monsters you’ll ever come across. Hugely recommended.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North (Orbit, May 2016)

A globe-trotting jewel thief who no-one can remember. An app which promises perfection. A truly fascinating protagonist. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a remarkable book, with a unique voice. What would you do if no-one could remember you? How would you cope? Relationships are out, and you’d struggle to get medical treatment. Every time someone met you, it’d be the first time, kind of a never-ending groundhog day.

Hope is a curious and wonderful character who is remarkable for being unremarkable, and the author really gets under Hope’s skin, with all her worries and fears and the spectrum of grey morality that Hope inhabits. The fight against Prometheus, the makers of the Perfection app, plays out this moral ambiguity beautifully – are they really the bad guys, wanting to help people become perfect? What lines will Hope cross to bring them down? Stunningly good.

Phew. My five honourable mentions. Each highly recommended, and I hope you do find something there which piques your fancy. Do let me know if you do spot something you like, or if you’ve read any of them.

Part 2 will be along soon with my top sci-fi and fantasy books of 2017. What will make the cut? Who will take the coveted #1 spot?

Into the Drowning Deep – Mira Grant


Published by Orbit books, November 2017
Source: Review copy
Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.
Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.
But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

This review will come in two parts. First up, the general ‘what did Dave think of the book’ bit, then a SPOILERIFIC (real word, honest) bit.

I was torn when it came to giving Into The Drowning Deep a star rating on Goodreads. It’s a solid thriller, and I polished it off in a couple of days. Perfectly decent, if unsurprising alien horror. Reminded me a little (ok, a lot) early Michael Crichton books. But… just wasn’t really scary enough for me. Not quite a four-star ‘loved it’, but more than a three star.

Ok, let’s go 3.5 stars. If you like Michael Crichton’s ‘something scary going on, lots of science and OMG IT’S EATING MY FACE’ then I have no hesitation in recommending this book. You’ll almost certainly enjoy it (especially the face-eating bits). The story moves along nicely, the scary monsters are certainly monstery and it’s worth your time if you’re into that sort of thing. I did enjoy it.

MOSTLY.

HOWEVER.

[SPOILERIFIC BIT]

[NO, REALLY]

[are you still here? Have you read the book? Yes? Cool. No? Did I mention SPOILERIFIC BIT?]

[We cool? Right]

See, the trouble I had with this book is that I’ve seen it before. Strange things going on so a bunch of people go investigate and get their faces eaten. No, they’re not dinosaurs, they’re mermaids. With lots of teeth. But you’ve got the usual cast of characters who naturally, make a series of spectacularly stupid decisions, usually resulting in them getting their faces eaten off.

There’s the Company Man (and the company is called Imagine. Not at ALL like InGen. No sir. No dinosaurs here) with An Agenda. His estranged genius sort-of-ex-wife scientist. The cute younger scientist who lost her sister to a previous mission. There’s a tricked-out super science ship with non-working shutters (of course). There’s pretty much a bit where someone has to go down a darkened corridor to do A Thing and gets their face eaten afterwards. The husband-wife hired killers who liked hunting things but continued to make a series of stupid decisions throughout the story. The company who sends a partially-working ship to find killer mermaids but can’t be arsed to wait to sort the shutters out because waiting another few days to set off wouldn’t kill you (but mermaids with a face-eating thing will).

There were so many Chekhov’s guns scattered around the opening third of the book. I had a bet with myself that X would happen to Y because of *this*, and that Z would happen because of *that*, and was fairly spot on with 90% of it

Some bits did surprise me – Theo Blackwell’s gammy leg due to an unspecified-yet-teased injury which required regular injections of an oddly-specific concoction of snake venom mixed with other things, which I assumed would come up later – either he’s getting eaten because he can’t run because of the leg, or someone discovers that the oddly-specific drug concoction would turn out to the THE MAGIC THING that killed off the mermaids. Weirdly none of this happened and it turned out that he just had a bad leg and needed to inject himself regularly. Oh.

AND! the bit where Tory falls into the ocean with all the until-now-killer mermaids, who’ve pretty much eaten the faces off EVERYONE but now largely ignore her (??). And has to swim under the ship due to the now-working shutters and swim through a tiny hatch only to be stopped at the end and appear to be drowning BUT NO, someone spots her behind the clear plastic (??) shutter which can only be opened from the inside manually (I dunno, maybe the electrics were still fried despite the cameras working) and requires someone to risk life and limb (and face) to go into the pool with the mermaids (who have got bored of eating faces) to open it and save the day.

HOWEVER. Despite all that, I did enjoy it. It was daft and silly but rattled along – I liked the characters (mostly), it was an interesting setting, and left things open enough for a sequel. Which I’ll probably read. Like I said before, if you like Crichton, you’ll more than likely like this.

Huge thanks to Nazia @gambit589 for the review copy.