The Blood Road – Stuart MacBride

Number eleven of the novels in the series featuring the one and only Logan McRae, this is a good addition which continues the high standards set before.

This time around, McRae is hit by a strange blast from the past. Detective Inspector Bell died two years ago. So why has his body turned up now in a car accident? Why did he fake his death? Where has he been, and what has he been up to?

McRae digs into the mystery, and in true defective detective fashion, doesn’t always get things right, but always kicks up a fuss and a trail of chaotic events.

The plot is solid, the writing fast, furious, and stiffened with some exceedingly sharply observed humor – despite the serious and troubling themes the book deals with.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s a must read, though you should really do yourself a favor and go back to the first so you can enjoy them all.

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The Liar – Steve Cavanagh

This is the third of the novels about con-man turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. To cut to the chase, it’s very good, though of all of them, this is my least favorite.

Flynn, whose own daughter was once kidnapped, is recruited by Leonard Howell after Howell’s daughter is kidnapped. Howell doesn’t trust the police, and he wants Eddie to help get his daughter back.

There are plenty of challenges for Flynn in another cracking tale, with a wonderfully constructed plot, and pretty near constant tension as the story is told. Slowly, but surely, the details of what lies behind the kidnap emerge. But even then, all is not what it seems.

Recommended. But read the books in order.

[Reviews: first, second, fourth.]

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The Plea – Steve Cavanagh

This is the second of the novels about con-man turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. (You can see my review of the first, here.) There is a novella (The Cross) which I have not read.

Eddie is asked by the FBI to have David Child, client of a firm of New York lawyers, to testify against the firm, helping convict them of corrupt practices. There are several challenges. Flynn is not Child’s lawyer. Child is charged with murder and the FBI say he is guilty. Eddie think’s otherwise. Oh, and if Eddie won’t play ball, the evidence they have against Eddie’s wife might make him think differently.

In this complex scenario, Cavanagh pulls off the unlikely result of telling a gripping tale that is just about believable. There are twists and turns, of course, but these would be nothing without the pile driver of a narrative that keeps you on the edge of your reading seat.

Flynn remains the central character, and the one with most depth. But while the supporting characters – especially Child and Flynn’s wife – are not as well drawn, they neither qualify as mere cardboard fillers.

The writing is good, with nary a passage of purple prose. Instead, you get something that is very readable, and hugely entertaining.

Recommended

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The Defence – Steve Cavanagh

This is the first of the novels about con-man turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. (You can see my review of the fourth, here.) There is a novella (The Cross) which I have not read.

Be warned: the plot is far fetched. A mobster has kidnapped Eddie’s daughter and is forcing him to wear a bomb while he defends said mobster. The aim is to blow up the chief prosecution witness. It doesn’t help that this trail is somewhat in the public eye, and the FBI have more than a passing interest.

Eddie uses his full range of tricks to try and get out of the mess and save his daughter. The author delivers a tense, seat of your pants adventure. If you can suppress your disbelief in the fanciful plot, you will have a great time.

The writing and Eddie’s solid characterization puts this at a level above the usual airport disposable novel.

Recommended.

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Zion’s Fiction

I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, preferably in novel form. All too often, the short story form neither excites nor interests me. There have been some exceptions, but generally I keep away from short stories.

As you may have guessed, Zion’s Fiction – a collection of Israeli fantasy and science fiction short stories – was an exception. It wasn’t only that I wanted to support this venture, but also that I knew almost nothing about the local fantasy and SF scene, and this was a perfect opportunity to start learning about it.

The Foreword (by Robert Silverberg) is fine.

The Introduction (by editors Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emmanuel Lottem) is informative, but a real slog. It’s a touch too much of the high brow, and also seems focused on squeezing every last one of the editors’ pals and acquaintances in. The worst part is that it did not engage me. The writing seemed limp and lifeless, with an absence of humor. I’m sure some others will love it.

Most of the stories were OK, but truly no more than that. There wasn’t one that made me think ‘Wow, I’m really glad I read that.’ Unfortunately, there were a couple that made me think ‘Wow, I’m really sorry I wasted my time reading that.‘ In short, a big disappointment.

The best of the stories, to my mind, is Keren Landsman‘s Burn Alexandria. (I believe Keren, who writes in Hebrew, has a novel coming out in English this year from publishers Angry Robot. ) Perhaps this seemed better because it’s one of the longer pieces and had time to develop more fully. The end, however, was exactly as I anticipated, and left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Probably the best known author of the lot is Lavie Tidhar. His The Smell of Orange Groves reminded me of work by China Mieville. That’s not a good thing. The story did not work for me. It came across as half an idea, half a dream, and wholly missing the entertainment point. Not for me, old boy.

The Afterword by Aharon Hauptman is spot on: short, snappy, and to the point. Well done that man!

I am sure – he said, entering optimist mode – that there are many great pieces of Israeli science fiction and fantasy out there. But none of them are in this book. At least I bloody well hope not.

Avi Katz‘s illustrations are OK, and the cover is clever.

But the best thing about it? The title.

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The Baltimore Boys – Joël Dicker

I was a bit disappointed by the heavily promoted first book from Joel Dicker (see my review of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair here), but this time around I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Once again it’s a novel about an author writing a book, this time featuring the (fictional) author’s earlier life story of growing up with his two cousins. The life journey of the kids – the Baltimore Boys – is told with love, care, and just the right amount of detail. The book is full of different perspectives on family and success, love and disenchantment, though packaged and delivered with an over abiding sense of compassion. The author gets his characters and makes them come alive on the page.

The plot unfolds smoothly, and the various story threads come together in a near perfect weave as we are brought up to date.

Whereas the first book was too long and self indulgently involved, I did not find the Baltimore Boys to be that way at all. If anything, there were occasions when I wanted to know a tad more.

The story of these kids growing up in America is really a story that also features their families. The respective parents and one set of grandparents feature extensively, and their characterizations seemed authentic, and nuanced. There is one part of this accuracy about the family, however, that concerns me, to which I will return later.

I read and reread one outstanding scene where a movie executive lectures the author about how books are dying and moves are the only thing worth having – apart from money, of course! Brilliant. It’s where naivety meets the gold standard of the free market, and damn the consequences.

This novel is highly entertaining, and well worth your time. Don’t bother with the other book. Just read this.

Before I forget, some praise for the translator: Alison Anderson. If it didn’t say on the book that it had been translated from French, I would not have known. The text flowed fluently. Great job Alison!

Now, the part of the story that troubles me most is to do with Judaism. The main characters are Jewish. How do we know that? It says so – once I think – but apart from that, there are only two outward signs of this, and minor ones at that.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead!

When there is a funeral, there’s a reference to putting stones on the grave, which is a Jewish tradition. Similarly, the phraseology used to remember the deceased is straight out of Jewish mourning rituals. But that’s it. There’s no mention of the festivals, barmitzvah, or even any passing reference to anything Jewish. To put it another way, the Jewishness of the characters brought absolutely nothing to the story. (So why include it?) I found this to be terribly sad. If it is an accurate representation, then it’s a disaster for American Jewry to have so completely lost their religious identity. What troubles me most, is that this may come from the author’s own world. In other words, it may be autobiographical.

The situation does not detract from the quality of the book. So, if you are still reading, note my recommendation remains that this is indeed a novel worthy of your time.

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The Lizard’s Bite – David Hewson

After a long break, this is me returning to the Nic Costa series from David Hewson. This is the fourth book featuring the art-loving detective and his colleagues.

The story here revolves around Venice and a glass making family thrown into chaos when two of their number die in a strange incident. Being the cops from Rome who have been sent away as a punishment for past misdeeds, the locals give Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni all the crap jobs. This time around, they are told to wrap up the case quickly, or else.

As the investigation proceeds – into the Arcangeli family and their possible savior Hugo Massiter – the easy resolution becomes more and more beyond their reach. And then things get worse.

This is a story told at a measured pace, with a good range of interesting characters, and some finely drawn backdrop. There is action and violence, but in between there is an opportunity to enjoy some good writing, and a plot that keeps on delivering up to the final surprise.

This is a good read. You don’t have to have read all the stories in the series before this, but it would probably increase your enjoyment.

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The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

The first of a trilogy, this is a fantasy novel by the author of the excellent science fiction book Altered Carbon (worth watching on Netflix). Unfortunately, it does not quite rise to the giddy heights of the latter, though it’s not a bad read, and many will find much to enjoy among its violence, sex, and magic seeped pages.

The book seems to be an attempt to tell three strands of a tale, and then bind them together.

The first is about Ringil, a war hero living his life as a storyteller in a local tavern. He’s a typical sword and sorcery swashbuckler, except that he’s gay.

Then there is Archeth, the Emperor’s pet investigator. She is the last of her race, and offers some kind of link between Ringil and the forces of evil led by the powerful Dwenda.

Finally, Egar Dragonbane, another war hero, stuck in charge of his tribe, and caught in a religious battle he cannot win.

The world building is OK, but a bit disjointed. This is probably because all has not yet been revealed. The pacing of the book is good, with the tension building, and parts of the story really suck you in. Parts. Other parts are not so good, or at least did not draw me in.

Also, I didn’t quite see the melding of the three story lines as being smooth. They are not even strands, and they make for a less than smooth whole. To put it another way, the plot is all over the place.

As for the characters, Ringil is the most rounded, with Archeth and Egar getting the raw end of the deal. I would have preferred to know more about Archeth. Such an imbalance works if the composite effect is of real people – do you get real people in a fantasy novel? – but, to be real, they need to fit in to their world. Here, the characterization structure crumbles, because all around the trio are a veritable forest of cardboard cutouts. Thin ones at that. The effect was like being in a first person shootout; alright, a good one, but that is leagues away from a good story.

Then there’s the sex. There’s a lot of it. I am no prude, but most of it seemed to be gratuitous and do nothing for the advancement of the plot, nor the enrichment of the tale.

On the plus side, there’s enough gutsy action to entertain. The combat scenes were the best written.

Overall, I felt there were some good ideas and interesting hints of characters that needed better kicking into shape before the book could threaten to rise above the average fantasy novel. This is one trilogy, I won’t be persevering with.

 

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22 Dead Little Bodies – Stuart MacBride

This is a contemporary crime collection including:

  • 22 Dead Little Bodies – a short novel
  • Stramash – short story
  • Bad Heir Day – short story
  • The 45% Hangover – novella

All feature the author’s creations, DS Logan McRae and DCI Roberta Steel.

If it’s not a contradiction too far, although there is not much to them – by comparison with the full length novels – they are well put together, and feature some of the trademark snappy dialog, shocking violence, and stories of suburban murder and mayhem. There are also moments of high comedy, though you my wonder if it is appropriate to laugh given the whole circumstances.

I enjoyed all the stories. Bad Heir Day was the most poignant, and 22 Dead Little Bodies the most complete.

If you are a McRae fan, you must read them. If you haven’t encountered McRae, I would recommend starting with one of the novels, because these don’t quite have the same punch and pacing that the novels do.

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Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

After reading the first Murderbot book, I said I would keep a watching brief. That didn’t last long. I was looking for something short and easy to read that would be guaranteed to be entertaining. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed with this, the second in the series of novellas about a security specialist robot that has achieved some form of sentience and independence. But Murderbot has a bloody past, and his – OK, this is an assumption of male identity by me – ongoing, self imposed mission, is to find out what actually happened.

This time around, another party enters the fray. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say Murderbot is not sure if the new party is friend or foe, and part of the edge of tension in this story is not knowing, as Murderbot attempts to travel to the mining facility where the old massacre occurred.

On the plus side, the story rattles along, with a good side plot involving some clueless humans, and another robot character complicating matters. The Murderbot character continues to develop, and there’s more to find out for sure.

However, once or twice in the action, I felt that Murderer’s capacity to overcome security systems was too much of a super power like ‘get out of jail free’ card, and suggested a certain laziness in the author’s approach. That is not to say I could instantly think of other ways around these systems, but it did mean that I was starting to think Murderbot was becoming invulnerable, and the sense of danger was substantially diminished.

After reading two books in the series, I am not convinced that the overall plotting is any good. The general level of writing is interesting enough, with some nice observations and touches of comedy. And it was a fast, easy read, that did exactly what I was looking for, and no more. But is the whole package worthy? Is this a series of cut down novels, or over-inflated short stories that should not be stitched together? The jury’s out. Maybe I am going back to my watching brief.

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