It’s #publicationday for Brand New Friend!


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It’s finally here! Brand New Friend is published.

Here’s the description —

Friend. Liar. Killer?

BBC foreign correspondent Paolo Bennett is exiled to a London desk – and the Breakfast sofa – when he gets a call from Mark, a friend from university in eighties Leeds. Paolo knew Mark as a dedicated animal rights activist but now a news blog has exposed him as an undercover police officer. Then Mark’s former police handler is murdered.

Paolo was never a committed campaigner. He was more interested in women, bands and dreaming of a life abroad. Now he wonders if Mark’s exposure and his handler’s murder might be linked to an unexplained death on campus back when they were friends. What did he miss?

Paolo wants the truth – and the story. He chases up new leads and old friends. From benefit gigs and peace protests, to Whatsapp groups and mocktail bars, the world has changed, but Mark still seems the same.

Is Mark the spy who never went back – who liked his undercover life better than his own? Or is he lying now? Is Paolo’s friend a murderer?

Buy from Amazon

You can get the Kindle edition at a special launch price of 99p/99c till Sunday. It’s also in paperback. 

The past few weeks have been a lot of work (and sleepless nights!). Thanks to everyone for your support, especially all the bloggers and reviewers who do so much for readers and authors. And don’t forget to check out the blog tour!

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The Pope of Palm Beach by Tim Dorsey

the pope of palm beach by tim dorseyBrilliantly described in the blurb as ‘part spree killer, part local historian’, Serge A Storms is a man with a strong moral code. He loves his native Florida and is committed to its ecology and culture and does not take kindly to those who undermine either. His version of ‘not taking kindly’ is both brutal and inventive.

In the present day, Serge is on a literary road trip round the state with his stoner friend Coleman, in search of the truth about a writer whose disappearance is a mystery. Meanwhile, there is a drugs gang led by a man with a criminal toupée which is diversifying into new markets. A third story strand takes us back to the Palm Beach of Serge’s childhood, and to the life of the iconic surfer known as the Pope of Palm Beach.

The setting, dark humour and focus on environmental issues mean that inevitably Dorsey has been compared to Carl Hiaasen (there is even a joke that plays on this in the book). Dorsey’s writing, though, has its own unique appeal. His prose is beautifully evocative and I loved the contrast between the languid, loving descriptions of Serge’s childhood home and the energy driving the narrative.

Serge is a man of many passions and encyclopaedic knowledge. He raises everyday griping to an art form. There is poetry in his declamatory style and humour that runs from bone-dry to madcap, but there are also moments of great poignancy.

This is a long-established series but new to me. The book worked well as a standalone but I’m now eager to read more about Serge and Coleman.

I received a copy of The Pope of Palm Beach from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Pope of Palm Beach on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

Cragside by LJ Ross, narrated by Jonathan Keeble

cragside lj rossWhen a novel opens with a detective on his way to a murder mystery evening, it’s not hard to guess where the story is going. What makes Cragside potentially more interesting is the prologue. In 1975, a man heads into work on the docks in Tyneside, where he is caught in an explosion in which over a hundred men die.

Back to the present, DCI Ryan and his fiancée are temporarily living in a cottage in the grounds of the stately home of Cragside, which has led to their invitation to the murder mystery evening at the house. When the inevitable death occurs, Ryan treats it as a crime, although it is by no means clear that it is, and the investigation goes on from there.

This sets up two interesting juxtapositions. You have the cast of a realist police procedural, more used to serial killers, thrust into a textbook cosy mystery, and the iconic settings of the Tyneside shipyard and the stately home, representing contrasting economic interests in the same region.

Unfortunately, these themes were not developed. There are a number of characters who might be a murderer, and we dance through a series of steps until a murderer is revealed. The locations were just locations, the genre tropes just genre tropes.

There is quite a lot of repetition and some continuity and procedural issues. Ryan seems to be constantly outlining to himself how much he empathises with victims and how strongly this motivates him in his work, even though this is not demonstrated through his action (more on that later). He narrows down the suspects quite rapidly and implausibly. In one chapter he ‘knows’ something at the beginning, but then asks his team to establish if this thing has happened at the end. He seems quite happy for his civilian fiancée to turn up at a crime scene on a social call, to wander around freely and to have access to confidential information about the case.

My main difficulty is with the character of Ryan himself. We are frequently told that Ryan is universally loved by his colleagues. The junior officers either want to be him or to go out with him. His senior colleagues have close friendships with him. However I found Ryan very unappealing as a character. He is rude, arrogant, has no hesitation in shouting down junior officers when things go wrong, rather than taking responsibility himself, and his manner towards witnesses is appalling.

Much is made of his privileged background which makes him a classic fish out of water. Perhaps it doesn’t help that as a supercilious, southern, former public schoolboy, in the audiobook he sounds rather like David Cameron. His relationship with his sidekick DS Phillips is kind of a Morse/Lewis one, where Phillips plays up his bluff amiability and Ryan sneers at his dietary habits.

This is the sixth book in the series and it may be that I’ve just picked the wrong one (some of the reviews I’ve read suggest it isn’t up to the standard of the earlier books). Perhaps series fatigue has set in, perhaps there was a rush to publish. There were some interesting details about the different locations, in particular Cragside (which is a real place, owned by the National Trust, though in the novel it is privately owned). There is a nice twist at the end which sets up the next book. I know this series is incredibly popular but for me it didn’t live up to expectations.

View Cragside on Goodreads



Liar’s Candle by August Thomas

liar's candle august thomasPenny Kessler is an intern at the US Embassy in Turkey. A bomb goes off there during the Fourth of July celebrations, killing over 250 people. Penny is injured and wakes up in hospital. A photo of her holding a US flag has become a symbol of the atrocity to the world’s media and everyone wants to know about her.

Penny is also of interest to her political masters and the Turkish authorities who think she has important information about the bombers, but she is bemused. She doesn’t think she knows anything and has to escape those who threaten her and try to work out why they want her.

I’m not normally a big action thriller fan, but I got caught up in the drama here. It was fun to see Penny put into a situation you think she can’t possibly escape and then see how she does. I found Penny’s mixture of intelligence and naivety convincing. The plot relies on quite few things falling into place for her but I guess that goes with the genre.

The story also takes in many locations and elements of Turkish life which were interesting to read about. The author explains the politics of the region with enough detail to make the story go but without overwhelming the general reader.

She highlights the competing interests and the moral ambiguity of the different factions, even those who supposedly represent the same institution. I thought the portrayal of Christina Ekdahl was particularly interesting. She is a senior CIA figure who has many admirable qualities but in getting to where she is has suffered losses and made compromises which have shaped her.

I’m always wary when publishers make big promises for first novels. I think comparing this one to John le Carré is pushing it a bit but it’s an entertaining, pacy thriller.

I received a copy of Liar’s Candle from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Liar’s Candle on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a very different spy novel, take a look at my review of London Rules by Mick Herron

The mysterious world of book discovery


Recently I was browsing in Waterstones when I overheard a customer speaking to the staff. She was a fan of a particular author and was working her way through his backlist but was struggling to find a couple of out-of-print titles. I was intrigued and immediately went home to research the author online. I learned that he writes historical mysteries, which is a genre I enjoy. He is also a prolific author. I pursued him to my local library and borrowed one of the three of his titles currently in stock.

I’d love to end this story by saying that reading his work was a transformational experience. The truth is, after I went to all that trouble, his writing didn’t really appeal and I didn’t finish the book. (I’m not naming him, he’s just an innocent bystander in my obsession, and he’s clearly a talented writer with a devoted fan base.)

It led me to think about the lengths a committed book lover will go to, driven by curiosity, passion and the more unedifying fear of missing out.

Of course most people would not have been curious in that situation. I’m equally interested in what does motivate the casual reader, the person who buys a book for their holiday or read for ten minutes each night before they fall asleep. Even people I know who read a lot but are not engaged in the worlds of blogging or social media often tell me they don’t know what to read next. (It’s not true that ‘everyone’ is on social media, I had colleagues in my last job who were reluctant to even use email.)

There is plenty of research on this, but it never quite rings true for me. Word of mouth is often cited as the main way people discover books, but I think word of mouth for books works differently from other products. If I’m alone in the lift with a work colleague struggling for small talk, I might tell them that I visited a new restaurant at the weekend and that it’s definitely worth going. I wouldn’t feel the need to enquire first about their dietary preferences or whether they enjoy dining out.

However I’d be unlikely to share the fact that I had read a really good book, or discovered a fascinating author, unless I already knew they were a keen reader. Reading is a more private activity , and one we mainly discuss with people we know share our interest.

Maybe when people say word of mouth what they really mean is they don’t know how they heard of the book, but when they looked for something to buy it was already familiar to them. They may have spotted it in an ad, or read about it, or seen someone reading it on the train, but it didn’t register until later. I have a friend who likes to read but doesn’t get much time. She will grab a title from the front table of a bookshop without reading the description or the first page, just on the basis of that familiarity.

These days I mostly discover new books via bloggers, reviewers and social media along with marketing emails from publishers via Netgalley (although their targeting is erratic, for some reason they think I’m a massive fan of commercial women’s fiction).

There’s also serendipity. Unfortunately as libraries are ever more starved of funds it becomes harder to borrow the book you want, but it does encourage you to pick up something you wouldn’t normally have considered. I used to like the random nature of charity shops and second-hand bookshops as well, though I must admit I’m more likely now to buy books that are discounted on Kindle.

Things I don’t rely on: I don’t read broadsheet reviews anymore. I just feel that they cover the same narrow range of authors and opinions. I also don’t tend to trust their impartiality – often the reviewer will have some kind of connection with the author, in that they’re in the same social circle or have the same agent or whatever.

The famed recommendation engines of Amazon and Goodreads don’t often turn up things that interest me but it does happen, as do other chance discoveries while browsing. There are also more unconventional means. I am that terrible person who reads over your shoulder on public transport, the one who has to steal the book they hadn’t finished from the holiday cottage (but I’d leave another in its place, so it’s really more of a hostage exchange).

Perhaps more mysterious than the discovery process is what tips us from knowing about a book to actually buying it. The longest I can recall is over a decade.

Someone recommended Jane Smiley to me back in the nineties. I got as far as looking for her books in my local library but the only one they had available was Horse Heaven. This didn’t really appeal to me because it was about horse-racing. I don’t know why I didn’t reserve one of her other titles, perhaps because in those days there was no online catalogue and it was quite a cumbersome process involving index cards and filling out forms and talking to staff. Or maybe I just didn’t care enough. I certainly didn’t buy any of her books.

A decade later I was listening to  World Book Club  on the BBC World Service when Jane Smiley was on talking about A Thousand Acres. I decided that I would look for a copy and then forgot about it. A few weeks later Good Faith was in our local convenience store for £1.50 so I splurged. I went on to read and enjoy most of her books (including Horse Heaven) and wondered why I’d waited so long.

What are your odd book discovery stories? Where do you normally find new books?

Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri

kill the father audiobookUsually when I read fiction in translation it’s a slim literary volume put out by an independent press, so it’s quite a change to read a big commercial thriller from Italy.

When a child goes missing and his mother is found dead in a park in Rome, suspicion immediately falls on the boy’s father. However the city’s Chief of Major Crimes has his doubts. He brings Deputy Captain Colomba Caselli back from sick leave and asks her to work with Dante Torre.

Torre survived a horrific kidnap and several years’ imprisonment by a man he calls the Father. He is now a consultant in child abuse cases but is still haunted by his experience. Caselli is dealing with the trauma of a case that went terribly wrong.

Their shadow investigation leads them to think that the Father is behind this latest kidnapping but the authorities dismiss their arguments as fantasy. As events escalate they find themselves isolated and in danger from police and criminals alike.

This book has fantastic plot and pacing. The author sets up hooks and keeps you hanging and they (mostly) pay off. There are some genuinely shocking twists but they feel grounded in the characters and the story.

However it’s the characterisation that makes this book so special for me. I loved the interaction between Caselli and Torre. They are both brilliant but flawed which is a familiar motif but it is done in a convincing and compassionate way. Torre may occasionally stray into Sherlock Holmes territory with his body language-reading skills but he is a much more rounded and nuanced character, and Caselli is no Watson – she has her own strengths and is in no way secondary to him.

I was fascinated by the structure of the Italian police and judicial system and the political interplay between the factions. The characterisation and the great writing extend even to the minor characters. Early on there’s a vignette in a restaurant. The significance of it only becomes clear later on so you have to pay attention as the author describes each of the diners, and all of them felt vivid and real.

One thing that struck me was the way the author writes about Rome. When you read books by British or American authors set in Italy you are normally treated to an orgy of pavement cafes, mouth-watering food and stunning architecture. By contrast, there is very little description of the settings of the key events, in fact it could almost be any Western city. The interesting details to me were things that don’t make it into those books, such as the the make-up of the immigrant populations – including South American and North African. (The latter are described as ‘Maghrebis’ – one of a handful of words in the translation that jarred.)

I do have a couple of reservations. I found the last third of the novel less interesting as it morphed from psychological thriller to action adventure, with the protagonists facing physical jeopardy from various adversaries. I felt the identity of the Father was quite heavily telegraphed. I was also a little disappointed that the old trope of the protagonist wilfully walking into danger, without backup or even a mobile phone, was used at the climax.

Despite these niggles, I loved it and there is a great twist right at the end which suggests there is much more to learn about these characters. I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

A note on the audiobook narration
Cassandra Campbell’s voice is gorgeous, so much so that for a while I wasn’t sure if I was loving the novel or just her performance of it. It’s long, at over eighteen hours, and I was comfortable listening at normal speed (I normally go to 1.25 or even 1.5 – the cynic in me wonders if publishers deliberately slow down the playback to make their audiobooks look better value). Listening to a book of this length, over a period of time, has been quite immersive, and I feel a bit bereft now it’s over.

You can see details of the various editions of Kill the Father on Goodreads, but I would recommend not reading the book description there, it gives far too much away!

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of another Italian thriller, Can You Hear Me?