Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Book Review: blueeyedboy

blueeyedboy, by Joanne Harris, is the second book in the author’s Malbry Series – psychological thrillers set in the fictional Yorkshire town. Having enjoyed Gentlemen & Players and Different Class, I was eager to read the remaining instalment. Although there are linked characters across the three books they are standalone stories. The structure of this one is notably different. Beware the media quotes on the cover telling the reader there is an ‘almighty twist’ in the tale and an unreliable narrator. While these elements are not unexpected in the genre, the hype did raise certain expectations. That I had guessed where the ending was going by the time I got there left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

The story is told in the form of a web journal called badguysrock. Most entries are written by the titular blueeyedboy with additions by one of his fellow members of the online group, Albertine. They and some of the post commentators appear to know each other offline. Who each of them is and their relationships to each other are kept vague initially to enable a slow reveal. blueeyedboy is writing what he claims to be fiction. The reader must tease out what is the truth from: the varying strands, changing details, and snapshots of key scenes.

blueeyedboy is one of three siblings born to a domineering matriarch who violently imposes her will on her children. The coercion and vicious punishments described are disturbing to read. That blueyedboy still lives with the women can only, perhaps, be properly understood by someone who has suffered domestic violence. blueeyedboy dreams of killing his mother. He writes in the web journal of previous murders he orchestrated but then reminds readers that his writing is fiction.

There are references to a dead girl, Emily White, who was regarded as a prodigy. There are also a number of women from the town who, over the course of his life, upset blueeyedboy and who are now dead. The strands of fact and fiction are kept shadowed by the changing details, and then additions by Albertine.

All of the characters interacted over several decades. Class boundaries caused resentments. The upper hand was gained on occasion through lies and threats. A wealthy gentlemen, Dr Peacock, took an interest when he discovered children had synaesthesia – the subject of a book he was writing. Their parents vied for the attention this presented, the chance for their offspring to be recognised as special by the wider community.

The portrayal of parenting is devastating. While most may not beat their children with a length of electric cable as blueeyedboy’s mother does, there are mental wounds inflicted when a child fails to live up to much vaunted expectations. Parents are eager for their peers to acknowledge the admirable qualities and talents of their children to the extent that young people are scarred when they feel they have disappointed. When do support and encouragement morph into parental obsession?

As the story unfolds and the nature of relationships is revealed there remains a question over what the truth may be as regards certain details. Names and nicknames overlap requiring a degree of going back through the text to work out who is being written about and how they met their end. blueeyedboy’s fictions are at times confusing. Albertine has memories she declined to share during attempts at investigation.

By the end of the book it is possible to work out what happened to most of the characters but, as a linear read, this was at times confusing. It is a puzzle whose pieces can shift in shape. There are themes explored – such as the parenting fails and domestic abuse – that add depth and deserve consideration. Compared to the other books in the series however, it is not as satisfying to read.

blueeyedboy is published by Black Swan. 

Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

Book Review: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose, is a fast moving thriller involving a teenage protagonist and a shadowy, ruthless organisation. It takes the works of artist Marcel Duchamp and imbues them with meaning. The puzzle to be solved involves artefacts, experimental drugs, and the nefarious profits to be made from hedonism.

Lee considers herself to be invisible. Her dad walked out on his wife and daughter when Lee was seven years old and she reacted by starting to shoplift. This activity developes into a lucrative sideline and gains her the attention of Edie, one of the cool kids in her class at high school. Their friendship makes Lee feel that she belongs.

The girls dream of college but Lee’s stepfather points out the costs, unaware that Lee could now fund herself. Her ill-gained money comes to light when she is unfairly blamed for drug dealing. With her future in tatters she eventually ends up on the streets where she encounters The Station Master. His operations are a part of something bigger and Lee determines to help those whose well-being he sacrifices, for motives she cannot yet fathom.

There is a link with a rave scene that girls like Edie regard as the epitome of cool. As Lee delves deeper she is discomfited to discover that she has been watched for many years. She has something that the organisation wants, and it is more than her latest light fingered acquisition.

Contemporary resources are used to good effect with hackers, the dark web and mass surveillance enabling both sides to hide and search. It was refreshing to have a young female lead able to think and act for herself.

The taut and slick writing encourages the reader to keep turning the pages but my interest in the plot waned when I began to understand what the organisation was seeking – it has been done so many times before. There were false flags that fell by the wayside, threads left to dangle. I wonder if this is to be the start of a series.

Although easy to read I felt dissatisfaction with the tale. It started well, but I struggled to maintain interest in yet another secret society operating from within hidden rooms, beyond the law, for age old ends.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann.

Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental – how each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Book Review: The River at Night

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik, tells the story of four friends who decide to go camping and white water rafting along a remote river in North America despite having no training or previous experience in such pursuits. When things go catastrophically wrong they must draw on every ounce of resolve to survive. The trials faced will change them forever.

The story is told from the point of view of Win, a frustrated artist still grieving from the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her brother. When her long time friend, the effervescent and seemingly fearless Pia, calls on Win to sign up to her latest exciting plan for the women’s annual get-together, she is reluctant to agree. Only her fear of missing out when the rest of their friendship group have confirmed their attendance makes her say that she is also in.

Rachel is a nurse and recovering alcoholic. Sandra is a cancer survivor and mother of two. All four of the friends are middle aged city dwellers seeking adventure but with little concept of the extent of the danger they are putting themselves in. There are casual mentions of botox injections, concern over hairstyles. This is not a foursome used to respecting the power of nature.

The women have commited to a four day challenge led by twenty year old Rory, a handsome young man who considers himself a master on the river. They are his first booking on a new business venture that his father is helping him set up following youthful scrapes with the law. I can only assume that his inexperience accounts for the lack of an emergency plan – the inclusion of flares, perhaps a satellite phone, along with training in their use should they be required. The group are off grid indulging in a high risk activity yet have no means of calling for assistance.

The disasters that follow are exacerbated by the dangers residing in the dense forests bordering the river. As each new threat to their survival must be faced each woman’s selfishness comes to the fore. This is not a feel good story of a group empathetically pulling together for the good of all.

By the end I barely cared if the women perished. They were mean and egotistical, their reactions foolish and bullying. They treated their one offer of assistance, who risked sharing a valued means of escape, with contempt. Frustrating though this episode was to read – I felt angry at times with the women’s attitudes – it fitted with their city lives.

The plot was well constructed and the writing flowed. The imagery evoked the beauty of the forest as well as nature’s power. That I disliked the protagonists does not make this a poor story. It did however detract from my enjoyment.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Raven Books.

Book Review: A Suitable Lie

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A Suitable Lie, by Michael J. Malone, is a psychological thriller exploring the complex issue of domestic abuse. In this tale it is the husband who is being abused. His reasons for staying within the marriage are compellingly presented.

The protagonist is Andy Boyd, a widowed father who enjoys a close and friendly relationship with his mother and brother. His father died when he was young. His first wife died giving birth to their son, Pat, who is now four years old. Andy is content with the quiet life the two of them lead. He has just benefited from a promotion at work where he manages a branch of a local bank. His mother considers him too young to settle for nothing more than work and parenting.

Andy’s brother, Jim, insists that they go to their rugby club for a night out. There Andy meets Anna, a beautiful and petite young woman who is new to the area. Andy and Jim are tall and well built rugby players. The contrast in stature is significant in their subsequent behaviour.

A whirlwind romance ensues. Despite his mother’s reservations, Andy and Anna marry. The bride-to-be had not been pleased when her future husband went away on a drunken stag weekend, but her paranoia fully manifests itself on their wedding night. Although shocked at his new young wife’s behaviour, Andy accepts her explanation and they settle into married life.

Anna’s volatile behaviour is described in detail, as is their early sexual activity. She is, at times, demanding, vicious and manipulative, playing to each of Andy’s weaknesses. His pride forbids him from letting anyone know what is going on.

In an attempt to mollify Anna, Andy distances himself from his mother and brother. His work begins to suffer, not helped by a series of irregularities in the bank’s accounts.

The short chapters help to maintain the tension. The reasons Andy puts up with so much are well explained. What was less clear is why he did not confide in his family, to whom he had been close, when the situation became so obviously dire. Perhaps my lack of empathy in this respect is because I am not a macho, Scottish male.

The story builds to a crisis point and the tension is then ratcheted up even more. The denouement is loaded with foreboding.

The author does a fine job of taking the reader inside Andy’s predicament. The twists at the end are skillfully presented.

I do have these few reservations around the plot. I do not enjoy reading details of sex and have little patience with machismo. I did not understand why Andy did not at least visit a doctor to have each set of injuries recorded. I cannot fault the writing style which was taut and potent throughout.

Abuse of either partner in a supposedly loving relationship is unacceptable yet is too often ignored. It can be tricky to prove exactly what goes on in the privacy of a home. Fiction is an effective way to get people empathising with such complexities. This book is also a gripping read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Suitable Lie Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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A Suitable Lie is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now. 

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Book Review: The Long Count

The Long Count

The Long Count, by JM Gulvin, is the first in a new series of thrillers featuring Texan Ranger, John Q. The voice in the story telling is very much that of a modern day Texas Cowboy, laid back and fearless with a down to earth and gritty determination.

John Q is a veteran of the Korean War. He is famed for his gunslinging, for having the ability to draw and shoot before his adversary has time to pull the trigger on a threatening weapon. He is also a widower and loving father, a loyal friend who calmly counters the racism inherent in his state by deeds more than words.

Set in the 1960s, when Americans were starting to protest their involvement in the Vietnam War, the book opens with a vicious assault at a lonely railway station. John Q is enjoying a sunny Memorial Day by the river with his friend, Pious, and son, James. They make a gruesome discovery but before this can be dealt with John Q is called across state to investigate the railway station attack.

The assailant is making his way elsewhere, calmly removing those who get in his way. John Q is soon on his tail but with no apparent motive can only follow the bodies left in the attacker’s wake.

Due to proximity, the ranger is first to respond when an apparent suicide is called in. The local law enforcement officers declare it an open and shut case but John Q has other views. When the suicide’s son, Isaac, hears this he gets in touch. Isaac cannot believe that his father, a commensurate soldier from a family of valiant fighters, would ever take his own life.

Isaac tells John Q that he has just returned from his third tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only has he to cope with his father’s death but also the disappearance of his twin brother, Ishmael, who is unaccounted for following a devastating fire at the Trinity Asylum where he was being held. It emerges that Ishmael was the victim of ill conceived treatment by the recently appointed psychiatrist at this institution, but the doctor is determined to carry out his own investigations rather than allow the police to become involved.

The plot twists and turns as links between these events emerge. John Q remains one step behind the killer as the body count rises. An agitated Isaac takes matters into his own hands.

A skilfully written thriller although I did find the teasing out of the denouement a little overdone. I understand the desire to provide a concluding twist, and I had not guessed every detail. My impatience with the number of cliffhanger chapter endings before the final reveal coloured my satisfaction, neat though the ending was.

This is still a worthwhile read. The Texan voice is authentic and adds a welcome variation to the thriller genre. John Q is a fine creation and I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

Book Review: Viral

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Viral, by Helen Fitzgerald, explores the impact on a family of public humiliation. In a world where image capture is ubiquitous and data can be shared around the world in an instant, it ponders the potential fallout of behaving in a manner that society finds unacceptable. There are those who seek attention on social media, who value high numbers of followers, views and likes. The proliferation of cameras means that privacy is now a rarity. Other’s missteps are regarded as legitimate entertainment with little regard for the effect such sharing will have on the individuals concerned.

The opening line sets the tone. I was concerned that this was merely a shock tactic but the author is savvy enough to build upon the more nuanced aspects of reactions triggered in order to retain the reader’s attention. Many of the subsequent events played out are equally appalling. The double standards highlighted are more powerful for the subtlety with which they are presented.

Four teenage girls go on holiday to Magaluf where they drink heavily, party and seek no ties sex with like minded boys. Leah did not want her virginal, studious, sober, sister to be there but their mother would not countenance this as an option. Sensible Su was to keep Leah in check. Their mother did not appreciate that Leah was the one wielding the sibling power.

On the morning that the girls are due to leave their holiday apartment, Su wakes to discover that a video of her performing sex acts on a circle of boys in a nightclub has been shared on the internet and gone viral. Grabbing just a few possessions she flees leaving Leah to return to their parents’ home without her. Su hopes that if she lies low attention will wane. The views of the video keep climbing. The press becomes involved.

The girls’ parents are distraught. Father wishes to diffuse the situation without truly understanding how to make this happen. Mother desires revenge, to burden the perpetrators with as much pain as her beloved family are suffering. She struggles to come to terms with the lack of protection her profession, the law, offers for victims of this very modern problem.

As Su tries to work through in her own mind what has happened, and to evade the good intentions of her family, Leah steps up to support their parents who are falling apart. The author cleverly shows just how devastating society’s condemnation can be. This is a loving and supportive family but it is made up of individuals. The world outside their walls is eager to feed on details of their history, to judge and to condemn.

The action never stops. The pain that this family has to go through is exacerbated by their inability to control what is happening and the stress this puts them under. It is not just the teenagers who behave foolishly. The reader knows that attempts to fight back are high risk but it is hard not to empathise with the parents’ need to act rather than passively accept a situation they would never have envisaged, a situation which appears to have broken the lives they worked so hard to achieve.

The denouement is neatly executed. It did not leave me feeling satisfied but, under the circumstances, perhaps nothing could. The story vividly paints the imperfect world in which we live.

This is a fascinating subject and the author tackles it with aplomb. The tale is terrifying in its realism with whatever literary licence taken never detracting from the knowledge that this type of nightmare could happen. There must be few who have never done anything foolish. It would be good to think that the thoughts and discussion this book will provoke may trigger a kinder reaction to the next image or video that is shared without consent.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber. 

Book Review: The Abrupt Physics of Dying

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The Abrupt Physics of Dying, by Paul E. Hardisty, is an action packed contemporary thriller set in the Yemen. It explores the hubris of the wealthy and powerful who believe that they are above the law. It lays bare the secretive and incestuous relationships between politicians and big business.

The protagonist, Clay Straker, is a contract engineer working for an oil company. His job involves getting environmental reports written and passed, often by nefarious means, in order that his clients may be seen to be complying with international regulations as regards local water supplies and air quality, regulations intended to provide safeguards for the indigenous population.

When Clay is forced at gunpoint to confront the reality of his client’s operations he finds himself a pawn in a dangerous game. With civil war breaking out around him he uncovers lies and secrets that are costing lives. The more layers he penetrates in the various organisations with which he is forced to become involved the harder it becomes to trust anyone.

Clay is a typical all action hero with a murky past. He is ex-military and his training enables him to survive violent encounters with those sent to stop him. He has the inevitable sexual liaison with an attractive woman who he probably shouldn’t trust but talks openly with anyway. So far, so predictable.

Where this book stands out is the fantastic writing, the stunning imagery. The author evokes the heat, the fear, the colour, smells, and tension of each scene. I may not have warmed to the characters but I felt that I was there with them, feeling what they were feeling and thereby gaining a better understanding of why they acted as they did.

Despite the shouting and gun waving I felt sympathy for the so called terrorists and extremists whose land was being plundered, something that the western media does what it can to suppress. Within the plot the reader is shown how populations are manipulated into supporting damaging causes for economic benefit. Distant races are dehumanised and presented as a threat. Those who do nothing become passively complicit in allowing the rape of lands to sustain the power and influence of the few.

These messages, whilst uncomfortable to consider, are a part of the plot but do not overshadow what is a fast moving and compelling story. The intrigue is gripping, the characters complex, the denouement satisfying.

This is the first book released by Orenda Books. It is an impressive debut for both author and publisher.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.