Spy Fiction: A Love Affair

Who’s Watching Who?

During my extended hiatus from blogging, one thing I didn’t stop doing was reading. I read a lot from about mid-February onwards (the reasons for doing so I laid out in the previous blog). While many of the books I’ve read in the last couple of years have been science fiction, fantasy, or other forms of dark fiction, one genre has been notably absent from my reading pile: spy fiction. Which is strange because when I was much younger, I recall visiting a local community fair and picking up a number of James Bond books at bargain prices. Some of them I read, others I didn’t. I think this is because Ian Fleming’s novels were not by and large faithfully adapted to the screen. (From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being notable exceptions, maybe.)

When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was adapted by the BBC in 1979, I bought the book to see if I could make sense of the complex narrative. I was 14 at the time, so I reckon John Le Carre was a little over my head at that time in my life. However, a few years later I did buy Smiley’s People, and that I read through with little difficulty. It’s amazing what a couple of years growth and maturity can do to a reader. Then, as I got into employment, one of my bosses got me into Robert Ludlum. I devoured his entire catalogue, paying particular attention of course to his Jason Bourne trilogy. These books, and ultimately the Matt Damon movies, remain firm favourites. It goes without saying that a new Bond movie is a special event in my life, but until recently, bar one notable example, I’ve not read nor featured spy fiction for this blog.

This is about to change for a variety of reasons; first and foremost among them is British author Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Herron is one of those writers that have been on my radar for some time. Practically every thriller writer going sees this series as one of the very best out there. The concept is deceptively simple: if an MI5 agent messes up in the field, or is deemed so incompetent that having them around HQ is a security risk, instead of sacking them, these agents are sent to Slough House, a dilapidated office block near Barbican Station, where they will spend the rest of their time in the Service pencil-pushing, taking on menial and meaningless tasks, until they decide its in their best interests to quit. They are overseen by Jackson Lamb, a repugnant former masterspy who reminds me of what could’ve happened to George Smiley if he let himself go and took up drinking, smoking, farting at will, and being generally unkind to his charges, his “joes”. Over the course of these magnificent novels, Lamb and his agents find themselves involved in matters of State security. They’re the fall guys if things go wrong. Lamb has made enemies of his contemporaries in the Service and the Establishment, and there’s nothing that would make them happy than to see him go away, perhaps permanently. But Lamb is always one step ahead and these books are a joy to read. But be warned, as with all spy fiction, not everyone makes it out alive. At the start of the series you will have your favourite characters, but by the end of the current book of series, Bad Actors, not all will be around to feature in the next book.

You will probably know that Apple TV has adapted the first book in the series, Slow Horses, and it’s streaming now, with season two on the way by the end of the year. Gary Oldman is perfectly cast as Jackson Lamb and you should really watch this show.

Away from the contemporary side of things, another series of books that really held my attention and doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves is David Young’s Karen Muller series, beginning with Stasi Child, published in 2016. Muller is an oberleutnant in East Berlin’s Major Crimes Unit. She is the first woman to lead such an elite division. The setting of the first book is 1975, a time in German history that is well covered in many fiction and non-fiction books. But apart from Smiley’s People, whose climax took place at one of the infamous bridge crossings between East and West Berlin, I realised I knew very little about the complexities of living withing a major European city divided by a wall and competing ideologies. Over the course of six gripping novels, David Young puts Muller and her close friends and family through the wringer; for while she investigated murders, she is closely monitored by East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. They are a nasty peace of work, natural successors to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, and have no compunction against forcing members of family to spy on each other. Stalin ran a similar tactic during his time as Russia’s dictator. And who’s to say Putin isn’t adopting similar tactics today?

Young’s series is another I’d love to see adapted for the small screen. It has a resonance to what is going on around Europe and even the United States in these troubled times, and provides a historical clue to what could happen in far right ideologies gain more of a foothold than they already have. Spy fiction teaches us a lot about the human condition, and our inability to learn from past mistakes. It’s why I will continue to read it for the foreseeable future. In the right hands, these books can be very entertaining and hugely enlightening. Be forewarned.

In the last couple of months I have listend to a number of podcasts about spy fiction. Jeff Quest has one in particular that helped me restart my journey back into spy fiction. I recommend his website Spy Write, which features Barbican Station, a podcast about Mick Herron’s Slough House books. Shane Whaley runs Spybrary, an amazing podcast and Facebook group that is all things spy fiction and non-fiction. He and Jeff are great resources if you’re thinking about sticking your toe in the water. Shane in particular has introduced me to new authors that I plan to feature in upcoming articles and blogs.

What I’m reading now: The Gathering Storm, the first book in an epic trilogy set before and during the Second World War, written with fluency and great detail by Alan Jones. This trilogy is going to take me a while to finish, but the writing and characters are worth it. The Insider the second in Matthew Richardson’s Solomon Vine series, a thrilling read that lays bare the corruption in Britain’s Security Services and elite politics. I look forward to more from this suthor.

What’s Next: The Other Side of Trust, the debut novel from new author Neil Robinson. Shane Whaley passed this one on to me, so it’s got to be good. Damascus Station, another debut but this time the author, David McCloskey, has inside information: he’s a former CIA employee. What he did, he can’t tell you.

About a Reset and Rebirth: A Personal Blog

It’s been a while, right? Regular visitors and subscribers may be wondering where I’ve been since the beginning of the year. Certainly those writers and publishers for whom I’ve promised reviews may have been tapping their fingers impatiently, saying to themselves that was a waste of time and energy. In fairness, I did let some of them know that I was taking some downtime. Some, but not all, and for that I apologise.

In truth, since the end of last year, just after Christmas I guess, I went into hibernation mode. You could call it a funk, too, I suppose. We had so much going on behind the scenes at home and across the Pond that I let a lot of things that brought me personal joy go by the wayside. I stopped reading as much, and I spent a lot of time doom-scrolling Twitter and media publications (as many of us are doing right now). I moved clinics at the beginning of this year for my dialysis session, and went from three hours on a chair to four immediately. The extra hour connected to a machine that is saving my life took more out of me than I was willing to admit at the time. Currently I’m transitioning from a line connected to my chest to a fistula in my left arm. Anyone on dialysis will know that this is a LOT.

The upside of the new clinic, apart from its wonderful and caring staff of nurses and doctors (God bless the Irish health service), is its WiFi. My previous clinic had a woeful service, so all I could do was read. Now I can stream shows on my laptop, listening to them on the headphones my wife got me for Christmas. So, basically, instead of reading to my heart’s content, I was now catching up on all the shows I don’t watch when I’m at home. As a result, I’ve barely read four books this year. And you know what? I’ve felt this loss deeply.

I can also admit to feelings of mild depression, nothing clinical, just the sads, since the beginning of the year. I even stopped listening to music, even though when I do, my mood always brightens. I wasn’t baking as much–another activity that brings me lots of pleasure. So you could say that I became inert and passive, when the ideal me loves to create, be active, and enjoy the little things in life. What I found, though, was that the ongoing pandemic (people I know are still becoming infected with Covid), and the failing health of a loved one, and concerns about my own and my wife’s general well-being became all-encompassing. In the end, I started catastrophising, and that is not a good place for anyone to be. There’s a lot going on that I and those around me have no control over; but the corollary is: there’s a lot we can control. Our own outlook is the main one, I think. What we do in any given moment; how we approach a situation that requires attention; and how we communicate our needs, fears, thoughts, and emotions to the people who care about us is the one important step any of us can take in times of personal crisis, big or small. We. Need. To. Talk.

It’s the middle of March now, and the world is as shit now as it was this time last year. But you know what? Apart from looking after ourselves and taking care of the people and space around us, and trying to be as kind and considerate as possible, there’s little we can do unless we run for office ourselves. Many of you are active in your activism, and I genuinely applaud you for that. I hope you succeed for all our sakes, but I know if I attempted to take this route, it would destroy what peace I’m trying to find for me and mine. Twitter, as much I love and hate it, sends me on a spiral at the best of times. This as much as my health and mental well-being has taken me away from what I love to do. I need to read. I need to write. I need to bring joy back into my life.

So I’m taking some fresh steps, starting now. I’m not bringing my laptop into my clinic for a while. Instead, I’ll bring my Kindle and get back to reading again. If I fall asleep at the wheel, well and good, but that won’t always happen. I have a pile of books I need to read. I need to make good on my promises to my authors, publishing companies, and my wife. I need to do better for me and get what pleasure I know I can achieve from what I enjoy doing. I also need to exercise more, and so when the weather gets better, more walks and more music. It may take me a couple of weeks to get back to my best (whatever that is), but I’ll get there.

Thank you for reading.

Enemy by Kimberly Amato

There is an old Chinese saying (some say it’s a curse): May you live in interesting times. No doubt about it, we absolutely do; it all depends on how you define ‘interesting’. Putting aside the pandemic for the moment, global politics is at its nadir presently. We have national and international corruption and coups going on right now. We have countries firing missiles into the sea for the sheer hell of it. We have a major superpower preparing to invade one of its neighbours because it can. This happens while the rest of us watch on, not knowing (or caring) how or if any of this will affect our daily lives. To people like me, books can sometimes provide the answers to where our future lies. However, most of the answers I’ve been getting in recent times haven’t been, shall I say, optimistic. When I put Enemy, a dystopian thriller by author Kimberly Amato, down after finishing it, I became very distressed about humanity’s chances of ever surviving the choices it made in recent decades. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read it: you really should. But don’t expect easy answers.

The year is 2045. It’s New Year’s Day, and Jerrik Laskin, President of the United States of the Russian Federation celebrates the dawn of a new year by executing dissidents who planned to assassinate the British prime minister and reform the United Kngdom’s royal family. Former Multinational Security Council agent Ellie Goldman watches on and hatches a plan that she hopes will one day soon end with the death of the president and a restoration of normal order around the globe. It’s a tall, almost impossible order, seeing that Russia’s King Valkov practically rules the world, with Laskin merely one of his puppets. Ellie and what’s left of the resistance have to fight on many fronts, but they’re holed up beneath New York City, deep within its subway system, with only a handful of operatives able to travel above ground.

Meanwhile, another of the Russian king’s goons, Colonel General Gregor Macalov, oversees a plethora of human experiments on Riker’s Island. He’s assisted by Tim Flynt, a soldier whose brother Sam secretly works for Ellie. Macalov is a deeply unsavoury character, but there’s hope that Tim may see the light if Sam can somehow sway him. Ellie’s right hand man, Anton, wants to hit Riker’s Island with all they have; but Ellie has her sights set on a more global operation. There is disagreement in the resistance, and there maybe a spy or two feeding information further up the chain to Laskin and Macalov’s desks. But Ellie is so focused that she risks the entire resistance ultimate betrayal and destruction. Every chapter in Kimberly Amato‘s Enemy is full of danger, subterfuge, and, at times, extreme violence, some of which made me wince.

The book is written and reads at a manic pace and you will be finished before you know it. But you will be drained at the end and in need of a good hug. I know I had to read something more light-hearted once I’d finished Enemy. The Bible came to my mind, because if nothing else, we as humans need Divine help before we succumb to our greed and lust for power and end up blowing ourselves up.

Hermetica by Alan Lea

It’s possible I picked the wrong book to start 2022, but with the way the world is right now, it’s also possible I picked the most apt. Hermetica, a science fiction novella by Alan Lea, is remarkable in that it starts to tell one story and then, at the midway point, takes the reader in a completely different direction. You may think you know where it’s going, but trust me, once you’ve finished you will remember the main character Dase for some time to come. To tell you why would be to spoil the story, but this book, although a quick read, packs a lot into its short length.

Dase is a passenger on the generation ship Hermetica. Fleeing Earth along with millions of others like them, Dase leads a solitary existence where their every need and move is monitored by the artificial intelligence that runs the ship. Every passenger has a job to do, a “compartment” their assigned to, and Dase is a masseuse of sorts. They didn’t do well in aptitude tests taken when they were much younger so this is their lot until they die, which they will, long before Hermetica reaches its destination. Their only solace is Snookums, a stray cat that Dase befriends and lets stay in his room. This is where things change for Dase. Snookums scratches a hole in one of the walls, and upon investigation Dase sees a piece of paper (a product they’re unfamiliar with) which tells of a history that doesn’t match with what Dase knows as truth. So what really happened on Earth? What is Hermetica’s true purpose? Needless to say, other passengers, authorised by the AI, don’t want Dase to take their investigations much further than they already have.

Dase is a compelling character; they don’t define themselves as he or she: they’re simply they, as is everyone around them. When they’re confronted with the concept of gender later in the story, they make a profound argument about how unnecessary binary division actually is. This will no doubt rile a few readers, as it does with one of the supporting characters in Hermetica, but for me, as a reader, I engaged with Dase and their philosophy. The main thrust of the narrative is an enjoyable one, too, but it takes second place to the ideas Alan Lea wants his readers to come to grips with. He describes this quite well in a Q&A he did on the website From First Page To Last. Stuck as we are with the ongoing pandemic, we are all like Dase, compartmentalised, stuck in our rooms, looking at tablets or the like, and not seeing the big picture until it’s literally in front of our eyes, and even then it might be too late to do anything about it.

The Opus Dictum by Gary McAvoy

I start this review with an apology to the author. Gary McAvoy sent me an ARC of his new novel, The Opus Dictum, some time ago. I promised him a review in good time, but circumstances and other commitments got the better of me and so I was not able to review it in time for its publication on New Year’s Day. I hope he forgives me.

I discovered McAvoy’s books early last year via Kindle Unlimited and because I was a fan of Dan Brown before he went slightly awry, I immediately picked up the first novel in his Vatican Secret Archive Series, The Magdalene Deception. I quickly followed up with the other two books of this particular trilogy. I read them greedily. They are quick, entertaining, and well-researched thrillers set in and around the Vatican City. McAvoy swiftly followed up with another set of fast-paced and equally as enthralling books featuring the same characters more or less. The latest, as I’ve said, is The Opus Dictum.

Father Michael Dominic is in charge of the Vatican Secret Archives. A young priest from the United States, he’s part of an inner circle of elite archivists who catalogue and protect documents pertaining to the history of the Catholic Church going back centuries. Many of these documents will never see the light of day, sometimes because they portray the Church in a bad light, or other times because they are so historically sensitive, they are in danger of being stolen and used for nefarious means. Dominic and his team, crusading journalist Hana Sinclair, her partner Marco Picard, and Karl and Lukas, the Swiss Guards, oftentimes find themselves at odds with forces from within and without the Vatican. And no more so than this exciting instalment.

Roberto Calvi, dubbed “God’s Banker”, was found dead in June 1982, his body hanging from the scaffolding beneath Blackfriar’s Bridge in London, The mystery of his death was never solved, despite being classed as a murder when initial investigations thought he committed suicide. Gary McAvoy uses this historical event as the jump-off point for The Opus Dictum. He imagines a conspiracy between a now defunct Italian right-wing organisation called Propaganda Due and a fictional Catholic prelature called Opus Deus. The eagle-eyed among you will see a named similarity with another Church-run organisation, one Dan Brown was particularly fond of in The Da Vinci Code. McAvoy states that Opus Deus bears no resemblance to the one that runs today. Anyway, none of this takes away from the fun to be had in these pages.

Like its predecessors, The Opus Dictum takes its characters and readers, of which I hope there will be many, on a high-flying trip around Rome and other European countries. Father Dominic is in possession of briefcase that belonged to Roberto Calvi. Within this briefcase are details that will blow the Church wide open. We are all aware of the reforms Pope Francis has been trying to make with regards to the Vatican’s financial transparency. There are those who thing Pope John Paul I was murdered because he got too close to the truth (see The Godfather Part 3 for more on this), but realistically the truth is always more banal. Rich people around the world, including governments, continually make huge donations to Peter’s Pence, the pope’s slush fund; they do this for favours and to influence papal policies. We know our present pope isn’t about this life, but back to the book. Propaganda Due and Opus Deus are attempting to influence who might be the next pope in order to bring about church that is closer to their own right-wing ideals. It’s up to Dominic and his team to stop a cadre of individuals who will stop at nothing to gain power.

I’m a huge fan of these characters and I’ve yet to come away from McAvoy’s books with anything less than satisfaction. The Opus Dictum is the author’s best book yet and I hope he continues this grain of form with his next book. I eagerly await it.

The Amber Crane by Malve von Hassell

As we come to the end of an unprecedented (God, I’m beginning to hate this word) year, I never fail to remind myself of the comfort I got from reading. I’ve read a lot this year: close to 60 books of various lengths and genres. On the whole, none of them have let me down. I left each one feeling better about life upon reading it. The Amber Crane, from Italian born but well-travelled author Malve von Hassell, is the last book I’ll read this year for Black Coffee Book Tours. It rounds 2021 off in a majestic, profound, and deeply affecting style.

A work of historical fantasy fiction (and I hope I’m not pigeon-holing the author when I write this), The Amber Crane tells the story of Peter Glienke, a 15-year-old boy apprenticed to Master Nowak, a merchant in amber. It’s the tail-end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Europe of 1645 has been devastated, with many millions left destitute or dead. It’s a war that shows no sign of ending, but in Peter’s home town of Stolpmunde, life goes on. Peter spends his time either living with his father and ailing sister Effie or the house of his master, along with the other apprentices, Anne and Cune. He gets by, grieving for his dead brother and mother. He has few people he could call friends, although he has a passing crush on the mayor’s daughter Marthe. The only person he could class as a confidante is his father’s housekeeper, Clare, who’s more concerned about Effie’s well-being than anything else.

And she has good reason to be. Effie comes home one day from a trip into town and it’s obvious to Clare that the young girl, who suffers from a form of epilepsy, has been raped. Peter suspects who the rapist might be but he’s powerless to do anything about it. While all this is happening, Peter finds himself transported to the year 1945, again at the tail-end of a war that has brought Europe close to its knees. How this happens is a mystery to him, but he comes to realise that an ornate piece of amber he picked up at the beach may have strange qualities. He doesn’t know if he’s dreaming or if the events he’s witnessing and the people he meets, in particular a young German girl called Lioba, are in fact real. The more he visits this strange environment, the more he begins to care for Lioba and her flight for freedom. He learns a lot about himself and in those visits, he changes and becomes more assertive in those times he returns to 1645. It’s the perfect coming-of-age story, perfect for readers of all ages.

Malve von Hassell is a renowned researcher, anthropologist, and scholar. She brings all these attributes, as well as an innate talent for telling a good story, to bear in The Amber Crane. It’s not a gentle read: indeed, there are moments of horrific violence in both timelines. However, the nature of the story is, humanity has faced much adversity over the centuries, and undoubtedly will face a lot more until we’re no longer around, but it’s the actions of ordinary people like Peter and Lioba that will have a deep and meaningful effect on the lives around us. Regardless of whether you live in 1645 or 1945, you have a place in this world and its history. What you do with that responsibility is down to you. All it takes is a piece of amber and a hell of a lot of courage.

Author Marve von Hassell

The Embers of War Trilogy by Gareth L. Powell

Many of the books that have given me the most pleasure this year have been in the genre of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Before 2021 is out, I will write a blog about some of my favourites. However, a series of books deserves a blog all to itself. Embers of War is a space-opera trilogy from British author Gareth L. Powell. Last year I read books one to eight of James S.A. Corey’s magnifent Expanse series. It was at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and I had little to do but withdraw from society as much as I could and read. (I binged the Netflix series Dark in and around the same time, so my mind was on worlds definitely unlike our own. I felt all the better for it.) With not long before final book in the Expanse due out (spoiler: Leviathan Falls is out now), I felt the need to delve into another interstellar world. Gareth L. Powell has always been on my radar, so I thought it was the perfect time to read his trilogy. And boy was I glad I did.

Powell’s trilogy begins with the eponymous novel Embers of War, first published in 2018. It follows for the most part the trials and tribulations of the crew of Trouble Dog, a sentient star ship that was once one of the most fierce and feared of a cohort of highly weaponized battleships whose actions against Pelpatarn, a planet covered by a sentient forest, led to the end of a war that devastated the Generality, the government that oversaw the galaxy. This action, a genocide in plain terms, led to a crisis of conscience for Trouble Dog, and the AI allowed herself to be decommissioned and disarmed. Rather than lie in stasis, she became part of the House of Reclamation, an apolitical organisation that foreswore citizenship in order to answer calls of distress across the galaxy and rescue crews stranded or in danger of losing their lives. Captained by Sally (Sal) Konstanz, a woman with her own past and demons she struggles to come to terms with, Trouble Dog set out to rescue the crew and passengers of the Geest of Amsterdam, a luxury cruiser that appears to have been shot down by forces unknown.

Within the Generality, there is the Conglomerate and the Outward. It was the war between them that recently ended with the destruction of Pelpatarn. Spies Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka are on either side of the political divide but together they need to find a way to get on board Trouble Dog and join the rescue mission. An apparent VIP was on board the stricken ship when it went down, the war poet Ona Sudak, and it’s imperative her whereabouts is discovered. Sudak is not who she appears to be, though. Embers of War is an intriguing and exciting beginning to the trilogy. Along the way Powell introduces us to a number of complex and exotic characters, most notably Konstanz’ right hand woman, Alva Clay: their relationship is one based on trust and enmity. There is also Nod, a Druff, a multi-limbed and many-faced alien who’s the ship’s mechanic. Over the course of the three books, this endearing creature becomes important to the overall arc. By the end of the first book, the galaxy has changed and a new military might, gone for millenia, has entered the fray. They are the Fleet of Knives and it is their presence that forms the basis for book two.

An uneasy truce has overtaken the Generality but when Ona Sudak is violently sprung from the prison where she awaits her sentence of death, this fragile peace is shattered when the Fleet of Knives launch and all-out attack on the Generality’s armed forces. New characters like Johnny Schultz, captain of the salvage ship Lucy’s Ghost, come into the narrative. He and his crew are navigating through higher dimension space, on the way to salvage an old generation ship called The Restless Itch for Foreign Soil which has been travelling the system for long, long time, it’s crew long dead because of an onboard rebellion. Johnny thinks the ship is fair game for salvage regardless of political insensibilities. On the way there Lucy’s Ghost is attacked and destroyed by a creature from the void. They barely escape with their lives and find themselves inside The Restless Itch. But they are not alone. Meanwhile a galactic war is kicking off once more. Powell leaves just enough breadcrumbs in his story, while still upping the stakes overall. The battle scenes are literally life or death, and there’s plenty of the latter, even some of the crew we’ve grown close to don’t all make it.

The final book, Light of Impossible Stars is the brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. Without wanting to give too much away, we meet Cordelia Pa, a citizen of the Plate, a system of odd-shaped planets that sit near the Intrusion, a portal to a new dimension, a wormhole. She escapes her home Plate on the Gigolo Aunt, ostensibly to meet her estranged father, who has a mission in mind for his daughter. In the Generality, the Fleet of Knives have laid waste to much of the galaxy, but Reclamation Vessel Trouble Dog with her much changed crew and AI brother Adalwolf by her side still have a job to do. The creatures from within the void of higher dimensional space are lurching in the Intrusion, ready to attack all living creatures in the Generality. Konstanz must find a way to pressure the Fleet of Knives into joining forces with her and push the Scourers back. This is a tremendously exciting and fitting conclusion to the Embers of War trilogy. It has surprises and twists by the bucketload. If James S.A. Corey manage to end the Expanse in a similar fashion (and I suspect they will), I will be a very happy reader. Hats off to Gareth L. Powell for pulling out all the stops with his trilogy. I eagerly anticipate reading his new book, Stars and Bones, due out next year. I will review this before publication. It’s a great time to be a fan of space opera and science fiction.

Author Gareth L. Powell

Stalker Stalked by Lee Matthew Goldberg

Picture the scene, if you will, of a book reviewer hooked up to a dialysis machine for three hours reading a book with a modicum of privacy (a curtain just about pulled over–not all the way, because the nurses like to see their patients to make sure nothing is going wrong. Imagine said reviewer reading a book that grows more intense with every passing chapter; so intense, in fact, that my blood pressure readings and heart rate rise by such an extent, the machine sets off an alarm that has the nurses come check in on you. Now imagine, if you will, that the reviewer is me, and the aforementioned book is Stalker Stalked, by New York City writer Lee Matthew Goldberg.

I could leave my review at that and go on my merry way and read something a little more soothing, but I have a job to do. And I’ll start by saying I used to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with my mother when she was glued to the show on the evenings I visited. (She was also a big fan of Alaska: The Last Frontier, but I confess a fondness for the families in this particular show.) Eventually she moved on to other shows and that was that. Unlike the main character of Goldberg’s compelling psychological thriller, Lexi Mazur (now there’s a name destined for reality television), my mother was able to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t.

Lexi is a mess, poor woman. She pops pills to cope with the emptiness of her life, mixing them with copious amounts of alcohol, while at the same time barely holding down a job as a rep for a pharmaceutical company. Her love life is one tragic break-up after another, and the only solace she has, apart from her drugs of choice and her cat Sammi, are her reality TV shows. Lately she’s addicted to a new show called Socialites, spearheaded by a Vanderpump wannabe Magnolia Artois, who’s as dislikeable person in real life as she appears on her show. But that doesn’t put Lexi off: she wants to be in Magnolia’s life to such an extent that she uses all her dubious skills to finagle a meeting in a chic restaurant where the show is filming. Things get very messy from then on.

Another thing we need to know about Lexi is that because of a highly dysfunctional and abusive relationship with her mother, she is a deeply traumatised woman. Her previous relationships ended, badly, when her boyfriends couldn’t put up with her incessant stalking, whether following them to work or checking their emails or texts. Lexi of course would deny everything (addicts rarely face the truth about themselves until a metaphorical gun is pointed to their heads), leading to a break-up and a sustained period of substance misuse. Her one friend Pria, who harbours a secret crush on Lexi, is powerless to protect her from her worst tendencies. And to make matters even worse, Lexi appears to be the victim of a stalker herself. There are any number of suspects: her ex-boyfriends; Magnolia; or even the friendly detective who takes up her case. I did say things get messy, right?

I will admit to being sympathetic towards Lexi, despite her being not a very nice or good person. Addiction takes on many forms and can affect each addict differently. Being a former abuser of alcohol (I’m sober over fourteen years now), I can relate to the destructive behaviour addictive patterns can wreak upon the lives of the addict and those who care for them. Although even on my worst days, I wouldn’t dream of doing a fifth of the things Lexi gets up to, the addicted brain can lead us down some very dark paths. I got out before things got so bad I lost everything. I think this is why reading Stalker Stalked affected me the way it did. Readers who don’t know too much about addiction, only what they see on TV, etc., may find some of the situations Lexi creates far-fetched or contrived, but addiction can and does cause a lot of situations the unaddicted would find ridiculous.

Lee Matthew Goldberg has written a fast and furious novel, one I read with one hand over my mouth, gasping for breath, and hoping against hope that Lexi would turn out okay. She may yet still, despite how Goldberg ends Stalker Stalked. It hit home to me, but then addicts know one another, and I always wish them well, no matter the circumstances.

Author Lee Matthew Goldberg

Heliopause by J.Dianne Dotson

There’s something about space stations that turn me on, in a literal sense of course. For me, some of the best science fiction shows have been set on space stations. Deep Space 9 stands out, of course, but in my opinion the Daddy of them all is Babylon 5, an amazing and for its time, ahead of the posse when it came to CGI, boasting an interstellar cast which told a complex and human and alien story over five seasons. The recent news that B5 will be rebooted in the near future excites and terrifies me in equal measure, but with J.Michael Straczynski at the helm, at least the vision will be somewhat similar. As long as he includes the classic John Sheridan line, “Get the hell out of our galaxy,” I’ll be happy.

At a time in my lead when my ‘read list’ on Goodreads is heavily comprised of many degrees of science fiction, my current reads have been primarily space operas. I’m coming to the end of Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War trilogy, and soon will start the final novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Falls. It’s an exciting time for me. But a writer I’ve recently discovered, thanks to following Powell’s Twitter account, is American author J. Dianne Dotson. Heliopause is the first book in her Questrison Saga quartet. It’s set mainly on a space station, so you know I was all over it like a bad suit.

Forster works on the research space station Mandira, near the outermost limit of our solar system, known as the Heliopause, that part of the solar system which is exposed to particles and ions of deep space (thanks, Google). He pals around with Gibbons and Efron, and together they the station operational and each other sane. Forster reminisces over his lost love Auna, but struggles on anyway. At the beginning of the book, he sees lights where lights should not occur. It’s not a hallucination because others see them, too. It’s a transmission of sorts, in Morse Code of all things, as discovered by Gibbons’ AI assistant Veronica. There is a sense of excitement on Mandira, as one of their colleagues, Captain Spears, is on the way with a ship-load of much-needed replenishments and goodies. However, when contact is lost with Spears’ ship, and Forster and Efron realise that the mysterious transmission may be behind it, they come up with a plan to locate the source. The station’s matriarch, Meredith, suspects the transmission may be the key to locating her daughter Ariel, a telepath who went missing on a mission many years back.

Heliopause is classic Golden Age science fiction, taking me back to Star Trek in all its glory and, of course Babylon 5. It’s closer to B5 because of the looming presence of forces deep outside the Border Wall that spell certain doom and devastation to Mandira and ultimately humanity. One of Forster’s friends, Efron, knows more than he lets on, and he urges Forster to use his own latent telepathic powers to aid the mission and save Ariel. And that, dear reader, is only the start of the book. What happens from then on is a rip-roaring read that had me gasping at some of the plot twists. J. Dianne Dotson self-published Heliopause and did a wonderful job at keeping the different plot strands together. As it is the first book of four, some questions will be answered, but many more will be left dangling. And that’s as it should be. By the end of the book, certain characters will have met their destiny and we may or may not see them again in future books. But others will remain, and their story will continue. I will read the next book, Ephemeris, with glee and purpose. I loved this book and I’m so happy I found out about it.

Author J. Diane Dotson

Kolkata Noir by Tom Vater

When I think of India right now, I think of the ruinous and dangerous politics of Narenda Modi’s government, its mishandling of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ruthless segregation and dehumanising of the country’s Muslim population leading to the deadly Delhi Riots of last year. But I also think of a country whose people love to enjoy life and their favourite sport, cricket. I’m a big fan of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and nothing put a smile on my face more when some of my favourite players hit fours and sixes across the park, sending fans into fits of dancing and singing. You don’t get that in England as much (and certainly not in my own country, Ireland, where cricket is looked upon as an elite but very minor sport). I think what I’m trying to say is: I hold two views of India, both opposing, at the same time. A dichotomy of sorts, I suppose.

As part of Blackthorn Book Tours, I was happy to read and review author Tom Vater‘s short book, Kolkata Noir. It’s a collection of three connected novellas in one volume, featuring Becker, a photographer with an affinity for Kolkata, and Inspectress Madhurima Mitra of Kolkata Police, the grand niece of one of the city’s most celebrated detectives. The stories are set in 1999, 2019, and 2039. Calcutta becomes Kolkata, then in the future Kilkota. The characters age and grow at the same rate as the city does, with each experience having a profound effect on both Becker and Madhu.

In the first part, a wealthy businessman is found brutally murdered in a back alley. Suspects include his wife Paulami and her paramoure, an Englishman names Richard Dunlop. It’s Dunlop that leads Madhu to Becker, a photographer in his twenties who was seen having a drink with Dunlop shortly before Abir Roychowdhury’s murder. While not a suspect as such, Becker is a person of interest to Madhu. As time goes by, the interest becomes mutual but both are afraid to commit to anything further. Becker is a traveller, not the settling down type, while Madhu is committed to her career and her own family. The mystery in 1999 is intriguing, and once the culprits have been apprehended, Becker and Madhu go their separate ways.

They meet up again in 2019. Becker is hired by the father of two young men who have decided to set themselves up as gurus in Kolkata. Aubrey and Magnus Bilham-Rolls intend to scam the poor and forgotten citizens of Kolkata into funding a search for millions of rupee that Mother Theresa was said to have stashed away before her death. (The late Christopher Hitchens, a vocal critic of Mother Theresa’s charity work would have loved this.) Unknown to both young men, other parties have an interest in their endeavours. A pair of corrupt film-makers and the leader of the city’s major crime gand, Dead King, want their hands on this supposed fortune, too. Becker and Madhu team up and try to save the men from themselves and the forces of evil. It’s a compelling story that gives more insight into the growing relationship between Becker and Madhu, with Kolkata very much the third ‘character’ in the story.

The last story, set in 2039, shows a city very much different to the one we know now. Climate change has flooded most of Kilkota, and a chemical accident some time earlier has left many citizens deformed at birth. It’s a horrible place to live, but people do what they need to do to survive. Becker, now in his mid-sixties, still single, thinks of Madhu constantly, but has never found a reason to rekindle their relationship. However, he receives a call from Meena, Madhu’s daughter, saying that her mother is in trouble and needs to be taken out of Kilkota and brought to safety in Scotland. Becker heads off on a rescue mission. He needs to rescue Madhu’s husband from a bunch of criminals holding him hostage, and then find a way to get everyone on a plane out of the city. It is by far the most perilous story of the three.

So, three very different stories. But the heart and soul of Kolkata Noir is Tom Vater’s deft characterisations. Becker and Madhu have remained with me in the week or so since I read this novella. Also, and this should be highlighted, the supporting characters, many of them citizens of Kolkata live and breathe in these short stories. Becker loves the city, but he doesn’t want to live there. Madhu loves Becker, but doesn’t want to leave the city. Their love is unrequited, as it perhaps must be. But by the end of the book, things may or may not have changed. You will have to read the brilliant and atmospheric Kolkata Noir to find out.