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Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

We know what we are, but not yet what we may be. (Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Act 4, scene 5.)

Ophelia is going through a crisis in Shakespeare’s play. Her husband Hamlet has killed her father and she is cracking up. She knows only what she knows and is reacting to that, but she doesn’t know what the future holds for either of them. This is an entirely human feeling. Each of us reacts to events in the here and now; we can’t help it. But we also wonder where these events will eventually take us. This quote from Ophelia forms the basis for the prologue of Scorpion, a mind-bending, jargon-heavy, but superbly entertaining and well written science fiction thriller from Christian Cantrell, a software engineer who lives near Washington, D.C.

Quinn Mitchell is an analyst for the CIA, a desk jockey with little to no experience in the field. She has suffered a profound loss in her past, with the accidental drowning of her young daughter Molly, which resulted in the protracted separation and eventual divorce from her husband James. She is happy enough to stay out of the limelight and is very good at her job. However, her so-called easy life comes to a disturbing end when she is sent out into the field to track down and stop a man dubbed the Elite Assassin. All around the world, bodies are turning up — more than 20 of them, in fact — and there appears to be no apparent motive except that they are almost perfect killings. There is no rhyme to reason, but Al Moretti, Quinn’s boss, knows there’s more to these assassinations so Quinn must follow the trail of bodies that hopefully will lead to an arrest.

Christian Cantrell identifies our assassin almost straight away. He is Ranveer, an Iranian national, with limitless resources and finance, and a steady supply of eccentric individuals who supply him with the knowledge and know-how to complete his killings. He travels first-class and stays at the most luxurious of hotels and resorts. He is a man with a mission, however horrendous it may first appear. He’s also on the clock. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs only Quinn can find, there is method to his sociopathy. Quinn doesn’t know it yet, but there is a connection between the pair of them. In the mix is Henrietta Yi, a diminutive woman, originally from Korea, where terrorists set off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Seoul and killed millions of people including her parents. She has a visual impairment that causes her to wear special glasses, otherwise she sees afterimages, which she calls ‘ghosts’, all the time. This comes in handy later in the book. She is working on a top-secret project for Moretti based on data from something called The Epoch Index.

Christian Cantrell (imagec/o crowdcast.io)

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. But there is a connection between all three characters that doesn’t become apparent until the last third of Scorpion, the first two-thirds of which is taken up by a captivating and off-the-wall cat-and-mouse chase between Quinn and Ranveer. The setting is near-futurish, the technology is unique but not far-fetched, and I got particular delight from the author’s description of The Grid, an area of Qatar that is closed off to anyone without influence, money, or a really good reason to hide from the authorities. The climax is straight out of genre favourites like Looper and Minority Report, and while some of the techinical jargon may go over your head from time to time, the characters make the story relatable. You may know what you are, but not yet what you may be.

My thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers of Scorpion for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Books That Shaped Me: The Prince of Tides

I’ve sat looking at the title of this blog for the last half an hour or so, wondering if “shape” is the right word to use. I mean, I know what I want to say, but “shape” could be off-putting. But then again, maybe not. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I picked up a book most of the world was unknown to me, apart from whatever my parents and teachers told me. I had to find a lot out by myself. As much as I loved TV shows growing up (I still do: if you look at my Twitter feed, I’m all about Line of Duty these days), when I opened a book and immersed myself in whatever literary world I decided to inhabit at the time, I learned more about human nature and human relationships that anything I heard in a classroom or a church pulpit. The genre didn’t matter; we humans act the same whatever the setting, wherever we find ourselves. So I think it’s right to say that as I grew into my reading, certain books impacted me in ways that still sit with me years and even decades later. Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is one of those books.

Published in 1986, The Prince of Tides is the story of former football player and high-school teacher and coach Tom Wingo. Married with three young daughters, he has a twin sister, Savannah, a poet who lives in New York, who has had mental health issues since she was a child. Another suicide attempt uproots Tom from his home and family in South Carolina to his sister’s side. In doing so, he leaves behind his own mess: his wife Sallie is having an affair, and he’s not surprised by this at all. Clearly a number of things aren’t right with the Wingo family.

Tom meets his sister’s psychiatrist, a beautiful Jewish woman called Susan Lowenstein, and she challenges Tom to fill in the blanks in Savannah’s and his family history. It’s a journey down memory lane that is both traumatising and eventually healing. Along the way Tom and Susan form a relationship that is combatative but respectful. They come from very different backgrounds, financially and culturally, but Susan’s husband is indifferent to her and is also having an affair. So they have a lot in common when it comes to intimate relationships. Tom and Susan have an affair of their own, which changes how each of them views life, love, and family by the end.

I wasn’t familiar with Pat Conroy before I picked up this book in the early 1990s. I knew about the movie version, though, but hadn’t at the time seen it. I may have chosen to read the book because of the movie, being a fan of Barbra Streisand’s film and music career, and also who doesn’t love a bit of Nick Nolte. I followed his career from his Rich Man, Poor Man days. Perhaps I may have picked up The Prince of Tides because of its theme of family relationships and how they can, if they’re not nurtured and allowed to grow, mess up even the most steadfast of people. I confess to not being in the best of places in life when reading this book. Outwardly I might have looked like I was doing okay, but inside I was close to being a mess. I flitted between jobs and missed a couple of really good opportunities to do well in life and personal relationships, but I found myself making one bad decision after another, all of which had my family wondering where the hell my common sense had gone. I was also drinking too much (something Mr Nolte can relate to), and it took me another decade to do something about that.

Pat Conroy’s writing, however, sang to me. I don’t think there’s one author out there whose prose style has touched me in the way Conroy’s did. You would be surprised to know, though, that I never read any of his other books; this despite him being the author of recognised classic American novels like The Great Santini, Beach Music, and The Lords of Discipline. I don’t know why this it. It could be that I’m afraid to read an author who, though he came from a completely different background to me, seems to know what I’m about. That is scary.

Pat Conroy (image: The Guardian)

Writers and readers will ask the question of themselves and others: what draws you to a book–is it the plot or is it characters? For me, any writer worth their salt can plot a book until the cows come home. It’s the easiest part, in my opinion: Lord knows I’ve plotted enough books and stories over the last 15 years to fill a dozen trilogies. But characters are the key. Pat Conroy deep-dived into the hearts and souls of every character he put in The Prince of Tides. Only the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, could consistently do this book after book after book, regardless of the plot. I’m sure Pat Conroy did the same, but I’ve got to pluck up the courage to read another of his works. Maybe soon, who knows.

The Magdalene Veil by Gary McAvoy

The Easter break is over, and so too is my reading of Gary McAvoy’s hugely entertaining Magdalene trilogy, which started with The Magdalene Deception, continued with The Magdalene Reliquary, and now concludes with The Magdalene Veil. During the course of these three fast-moving and engaging adventures, we follow the same trail of breadcrumbs scattered throughout history that the trilogy’s main characters do. Whether or not they lead you to the same crisis of faith Fr Michael Dominic faces is beside the point; the thrill is in the journey.

In each of the preceding novels I was able to relate them to some other book or movie that had captured my interest in the past. With The Magdalene Veil, my thoughts turned to one of each: Where Eagle’s Dare (1968), the preposterously entertaining WWII romp with Richard Burton and a brilliantly sardonic Clint Eastwood who, if they weren’t killing Nazis, were calling Danny Boy on the radio; and Ira Levin’s conspiracy thriller The Boys From Brazil, also a movie, starring the ultimate in odd couples, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, Oscar winners both. The Magdalene Veil takes concepts from both movies and books and runs with them in a couple of very surprising ways.

Much has been made of the Third Reich’s interest in the occult. Anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark might be aware that Hitler was indeed a “nut on the subject”. So much so, he and his evil goons set up an organisation called the Ahnenerbe, tasked with justifying their hatred of the Jewish race by delving deep into Aryan ancestry and uncovering shared DNA with the biblical Jesus. Heinrich Himmler allegedly finds the proof he needs, but before he can escape to Argentina with the relic, he is caught by Allied forces and kills himself. Fast forward to the present day, and Fr Dominic and his friend, journalist Hana Sinclair, are approached by a man who claims he knows, via a diary his father kept, where this relic can be found. Of course the path to glory rarely runs smooth, especially when exiled Nazis are lurking around every corner.

The bulk of the action this time around takes place in Bariloche, a German settlement in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The South American country is also the place where the former Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Dante, has been exiled to. He finds fellow conspirators in the burgeoning neo-Nazi community (as you naturally would if you were fake-Catholic, I guess). Eventually he will have to cross swords with the people who put him there.

All of the elements that made the first two books in the series enjoyable to me are present here. The two Swiss Guards, Karl and Lukas, are in their element, using the skills they inherited from their training to aid in rescue and recovery missions. I’d have these two on my team of bodyguards any day of the week, if such a service was ever needed. Hana’s grandfather always has a private jet lying idle, which comes in handy for fast, frictionless international travel. And there’s always God, who will take the side of the righteous when things don’t go according to human planning. He’s normally reliable that way.

Gary McAvoy utilises his own skill-set perfectly well, too, mixing historical fact with historical fiction. He very helpfully links his research at the end of the novel, and all he wants is for readers to be entertained and to want to read more about the secret history of the Third Reich. When the Nazis get what they deserve, it’s hard not to pump your fist with victory. Because who doesn’t want to see Nazis defeated all day every day?

I enjoyed reading these books and I would recomment them to fans of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown. My thanks to Gary McAvoy for providing me with a copy of The Magdalene Veil in exchange for an honest review. I loved it. Honestly.

Silvers Hollow by Patrick R. Delaney

Any time I don’t have a watch on my wrist, I am conscious of its absence. It’s a lot simpler to look at my watch than it is to reach for my phone and get the time from there. I’ve always worn a watch and I feel close to naked if I am, for whatever reason, not wearing one. I suppose I’m like most people in that I need to know what time it is, what day it is, and–in these pandemic times–what month it is. So imagine waking up one day with no recollection of any of these mundane facts. That would be scary, right?

The main character in Patrick R. Delaney‘s latest novel, Silvers Hollow, faces such a bizarre and disconcerting situation. She is anonymous to the reader, remaining unnamed throughout the book, and despite having some memories, she is practically anonymous to herself. The premise is a simple one, if deceptively so. A woman wakes up on the platform of a deserted train station, with the train she may or may not have been on pulling away. She has no memory of how she got there, or where she is–or what time it is. Leaving the station she meets the first of the supporting characters that drift in and out of the narrative. The woman finds herself in the back of Officer Smith’s ancient police car, and he takes her on a strange and meandering journey through what seems to be her childhood town of Silvers Hollow.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used it be, the saying goes, and this particular trip down memory lane is anything but comforting. Delaney’s main character is put through the wringer, emotionally and physically. Silvers Hollow itself seems stuck in time, with none of the modern amenities you would see and take for granted today. And it’s always dark. The story, as it unfolds, leaves the reader and the woman without any light at all. There is a reason for this, but you need to stick the course to find out. Meanwhile, the woman has to contend with the mystery of why she is where she is, and what, if anything, her family has to do with her predicament.

The people she meets on her journey are equally as scared, but of what, they can’t or won’t say. This adds to the sense of menace and dread that permeates the book. Delaney’s decision to allow the reader to follow closely beside his main character is an excellent one. All throughout the book I felt the same things the woman felt. It was like being a companion to someone else’s dream, and it wasnt a comfortable experience at all. But I kept reading because, like the woman, I wanted answers.

Patrick Delaney (source: Goodreads)

Silvers Hollow makes full use of its brief running time, coming in a couple of pages shy of 190. But don’t let its brevity fool you: there’s a lot going on here, and nothing is what it seems. Patrick R. Delaney has crafted a well-written, atmospheric, psychological horror story. The end is both dystopian and apocalyptic, and you’ll never ever want to have a dream like it.

NetGalley and the publishers of Silvers Hollow provided me with an ARC in return for an honest review. I thank them for the opportunity. The book will be published June 1, 2021, and is available to pre-order.

Passion Play by Claire O’Dell

Therez Zhalina has lived a very sheltered life in Melnek. She is the daughter of a ambitious merchant who, unfortunately for the 15-year-old girl, has big plans for the family and business, whether Thereze likes it or not. And she doesn’t. Following a formal dinner, where Therez is introduced to Melnek society, the young girl is devastated to find out that her father has arranged her to be married to a cool and cruel man, Theodr Galt. Therez has dreams of her own. She wishes to travel to Duenne and attend university there. Basically, she wants to see the world. Her father’s plans would set her on a path on which she would have no control over her life. So she decides to leave without saying a word.

Taking what money she’s saved, she ends up gaining carriage out of Melnek with a caravan owner and his cohort of unsavoury fellow travellers. This is where things take a dark turn in Thereze’s young life. Most of her possessions have been stolen from her, and in order to stay on her journey she is forced to trade with the only thing she has left: her body. In a series of gruelling scenes, for the reader as well as Therez, the girl makes a choice to give up her body and innocence to her rapists — for that is what they are, regardless of the choice Therez makes. She is but a child, but now she’s little more than a sex slave. I found these sections of the story very hard to read.

When Therez eventually makes her escape, she ends up at a pleasure house run by Lord Raul Kosenmark, a duke who was once an advisor for the king. He, too, ran away from his responsibilities. Therez changes her name to Ilse, and is referred to this new name for the rest of the book. Raul offers her a position in his household once she’s physically well, and Ilse begins to form new friendships in the kitchen. Raul sees potential in her and so takes her on as his secretary. It is from this position that Ilse learns of what is going on in the world around her. There is more than politics at play here. There is magic everywhere, with some people being more gifted than others. There are plots, and there’s a war brewing. In the midst of all this, there is a sacred jewel that has gone missing, one that holds the key to power.

A number of things intrigue me about Passion Play. Author Claire O’Dell, whose work I’ve reviewed here before, has created a world that is not unlike Eastern Europe, with names and a magical language that almost Germanic. If I could posit a theory, the politics at play here are similar to what led to the outbreak of WWI. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. The countries that surround Ilse and Raul each have their own border controls and internal politics. Throw a sinister magician into the mix, and you have the spark for major bloodshed. The other volumes in the series will no doubt explore these complexities in greater detail. In Passion Play we’re given what information we need to know at this juncture. The system of magic has at its core, I do believe, a knowledge that one has lived a previous life. Reincarnation rears its head once more. I find this very fascinating.

Claire O’Dell

I was impressed by the level of detail O’Dell put into her world-building. I’m a sucker for detail, and the author does not disappoint. Her supporting characters have good background stories and I have no doubt that characters we see in passing will pop up again in later books. I enjoyed this book, and while some readers will understandably balk at the level of sexual violence at the start, there is a pay-off towards the end. When Passion Play ends, neither Ilse nor Raul are the same people when we first meet them. They’ve both endured tragedy and loss of familial connection. Where this takes them, we will have to find out for ourselves in the next book, Queen’s Hunt.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 13-17

Read the previous instalment here.

These next four chapters lay the trail for Edmond Dantes eventual escape from the Chateau d’If. This is an important section for the book because, away from the political to-and-fro of early 19th century French history, we get to spend a decent amount of time with Dantes and his new-found friend and spiritual adviser, the Abbe Faria, the ‘Learned Italian’.

Napoleon has been banished once more, and Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne. No better time for the inspector-general of prisons to do his rounds and see how things are with the inmates of the lonely island Dantes calls home. Dantes spies an opportunity to appeal to the man who, in all fairness, sees no reason why Dantes should even be in prison. Having listened to his pleas, the inspector-general promises the innocent man that he will look into his case. Dantes feels hope at last, thinking that de Villefort’s notes will save him. However, the opposite happens. Conspiracy runs deep and the prosecutor’s lies, and his desire to hide his own relationship with Noirtier further damn Dantes’ claim to be released. There is nothing the inspector-general can do.

Nor is there anything he can do with the other prisoner he visits, the seemingly mad Italian Abbe Faria, who promises the inspector-general untold wealth if his release can be secured. Faria has a treasure buried somewhere and he’s willing to part with most of it if his pleas are met. The governor and inspector-general think him mad and leave him to rot away. Prisoners 27 (Faria) and 27 (Dantes) are left to fend for themselves.

Dantes falls into deep despair, at one point threatening to starve himself to death, such is his plight. His prayers to God go unheeded; and he’s oblivious to the fact that other people who were close to him put him where he is now. But when he hears a noise coming from the other side of his cell, he tricks his jailer into leaving his dinner pot behind and starts scratching away at the sound. Then he hears a voice. After some time and much scraping away at the wall, he meets his neighbour, who turns out to be the Abbe Faria, who comes into Dantes’ cell.

Far from being mad, as his jailers deem him to be, Faria is a resourceful man. Imprisoned because of his belief in a unified Italy, Faria is a polymath who becomes Dantes’ tutor in the years they spend together. He teached Dantes other languages and soon enough Dantes, an intelligent if naive man, quickly learns the basics in Italian and English. Faria also proves to Dantes that Caderousse, Fernand, and Danglars were the men behind his captivity. Dantes swears revenge. Together they hatch a plan to escape. Faria, much to his own despair, works out that he’s been digging in the wrong direction. So, between planning another route, and learning mathematics and philosophy, the two men bond over a mutual need for freedom.

Before their plan can come to fruition, though, the abbe has an epileptic fit. The man knows he’s on limited time, with an arm and a leg becoming paralyzed. Dantes swears to not leave his friend while he’s alive.

Colony by Benjamin Cross

I’m a sucker for a monster movie. During these dark winter months, with so much going on in the world, I have found some solace in fictional monsters. One of my all-time favourites is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s classic from 1951. I love the setting, the isolation, the unknown that’s ‘out there’ and ‘within’. It was the perfect movie for its time, and nearly 40 years later, I wouldn’t change a single frame.

Author Benjamin Cross’ debut novel, Colony, captures a lot of that movie’s effects, especially the sense of dread and aforementioned isolation, but is individual enough to not be a retread. It’s to his credit that he not only brings his own talents to the page, but also his extensive experience in the world of archaeology. A native of South Wales, Mr Cross has travelled all over the world, exploring ancient sites in Cambodia and Peru. A noted environmental consultant, he wears a couple of hats during the course of this book.

Callum Ross is an archaelogy professor based in Scotland, with a particular fondness for skipping stones with his son Jamie along the banks of Loch Ness. He’s trying to build a relationship with Jamie, because his job had him spend far too much time away from home. The softly-softly approach appears to be working, until a colleague appears out of the blue offering Callum a gilt-edged opportunity to travel to the Arctic and help a multinational company explore Harmsworth Island, one of hundred of islands on the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Explaining to his son that he’ll Facetime once a week doesn’t cut it with Jamie or his ex, but Callum goes anyway.

He’s reunited with an another colleague, Dan Peterson, a Texan who ribs Callum by referring to him as Dr McJones. The rest of the contingent is made up of scientists from Russia mainly, and one Canadian. There is also a suspiciously large number of Spetznaz, soldiers for hire representing the Russian Federation. Things begin intriguingly enough with the discovery of the mummified remains of a man who’s been perfectly preserved for millenia by sub-zero temperatures. Callum’s companion Lungkaju tells of a myth that has been handed down through generations of a hero sent out by his people to kill a monster. Think Beowulf, only in a colder climate. The mummy’s injuries suggest this is the hero, and that the monster got the better of him.

Benjamin Cross

Then we meet the monsters.

Colony is a frenetically paced novel that brings to mind not only The Thing, but also Michael Crichton’s classic techothriller Jurassic Park. (We’ve all seen this movie, right?) The concept that we share our planet with species that we haven’t yet discovered isn’t a new one. Scientists have always supported the theory that in parts of the world that one would deem uninhabitable or unexplored, there must be creatures that have evolved over eons that we’re not aware of. Benjamin Cross takes us to that place, and then runs riot. Callum and his companions not only have to deal with monsters that want to kill them, but there are saboteurs in their midst who for reasons of greed and idealism want to destroy Harsmworth and everyone on it. When monsters aren’t ripping humans apart, the bad guys are setting off explosions and murdering in cold blood. There is a lot going on in this book, and Mr Cross does well to balance the action with some decent characterisations, even if the dialogue contains more expostion than it needs to. But this is only a minor criticism of a book that held my attention from the first page. I really enjoyed it, and I want to see what the author does next.

PS: There’s a clever coda right at the end that’s worth hanging around for. Call it a post-credit scene, perhaps?

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 5-8

(Chapters 1-4 can be found here)

Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans. For Edmond Dantes, fresh off a boat and well on his way to success in his career on the seas and so close to marrying the lovely Mercedes, his elation at being around family means he’s completely oblivious to the conspiracy which will take him away from everything and everyone he holds dear. Things are about to go pear-shaped for the young Frenchman.

At their betrothal feast, during which they will marry (because why wait?), Edmond and Mercedes enjoy their special day, lavishing plenty of attention on Old Dantes, Edmond’s ailing father. Edmond is anxious to get the old man back to health. Meanwhile, Caderousse and Danglars consider their lot in life, seemingly unaware that the third leg of their Tripod of Conspiracy has taken it upon himself to deliver the letter Danglars forged and carelessly threw away to the king’s attorney. So it’s a surprise even to them when Fernand does turn up, followed soon after by some royal guards, who take Edmond into custody without telling him why. It’s only then does it dawn on the two men that Fernand took the bull by the horns. Caderousse and Danglars think it’s in their best interest to say nothing.

We are then introduced to yet another conspirator. Gerard de Villefort is an ambitious prosecutor, acting as assistant to the king’s attorney. He’s having a betrothal feast of his own, due to marry Renee, the daughter of the highly influential Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Meran. Over dinner, it is revealed that Villefort’s father is an infamous supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, M. Noirtier, but that his son does not share his views and is a staunch royalist. Indeed, his job has required him to sentence a handful of Bonapartists to the guillotine. Renee is horrified that her betrothed’s career requires him to show little mercy, but he promises her to do better when the situation calls for it. Villefort is then called away to deal with a man who’s been brought to his house for examination.

That man is Edmond Dantes, who’s understandably bewildered by what’s happening to him. Villefort is informed of the facts of the matter: that an anonymous letter marked for the attention of the king’s attorney has laid accusations against Edmond, and that he’s in possession of incriminating material that needs to be looked at urgently. When Villefort first sets eyes on Edmond, he’s convinced of the man’s innocence. We would breathe a sigh of relief, but that would only make The Count of Monte Cristo a much shorter book than it actually is. Villefort’s initial examination, however, reveals nothing criminal, just a naive young man taking on the responsibility of another’s mission: the late Captain Leclere.

Then comes the clincher. Just as Edmond is about to be set free, Villefort sees that the letter in Dantes’ possession is addressed to M. Noirtier, Villefort’s father, and he panics. If word of this gets out, his career and life is ruined. So he makes a split second decision: he swears Edmond to secrecy with the false promise of impending freedom; he burns the letter in the fireplace; and places Edmond into custody for a “few hours”. Later that night, Edmond is taken by boat, out through the harbour, past where Mercedes lives, and drops him off at the Chateau d’If, an island fortress that doubles up as a prison. Edmond has nowhere to go but inside, where his jailer awaits with bread, water, and a bed of straw. Subsequent attempts to gain a meeting with the prison governor lands him in the dungeon in a short space of time.

City of Forts by Jason Beech

Growing up where I did, a suburban town within a bus ride of Dublin’s city centre, wasn’t tough, really. You could say I was born and raised in a “good” part of town. There was little trouble, schools were good, families looked out for one another; there was a community spirit that lives to this day, I believe, although I haven’t been back for years. Growing up often means moving on, moving away, sometimes to a better life, sometimes not. Luck and ambition comes into it. The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging for a lot of families around me, but if you were provided, as I was, with a decent education and a start in the jobs market, then you were already winning. Then the crash happened. And it kept on happening.

It’s still happening, for many families all over the world. Jason Beech‘s novel, City of Forts, tells of one such family, who live in an unnamed town near an unnamed city, somewhere in Midwest, USA, who are in danger of falling into the cracks of society. Caitlin Nardilo is a single mother to Ricky and Brett. She holds down three jobs so she can keep food on the table. Her husband has long since headed to the Coast and is almost completely absent from their lives. Ma doesn’t know that when she heads out to work, Ricky, 13, leaves his younger brother alone in the house for the day so he can escape to the City of Forts with his friends Liz, Bixby, and Tanais. The City of Forts is a piece of land upon which there is an disused factory and a series of abandoned houses. The four friends lay claim to this place and make it their playground. It’s the final summer before they all go to high school. Ricky is in love with Liz, who for her part is unsure about where her life is going to go. Bixby is on the run from social services, having fled his foster home, and is now among the ruins. Tanais is a young Black girl, new to the group, but still figuring out if she belongs with the group or not. They are from the Town, but the City looms nearby, offering hope and menace in equal measure.

We get used to seeing them act around each other. They make do with what cards life has dealt them, and there’s a certain sense, especially with Ricky, that this is going to be as good as it gets. Then, at the very start of the story, Liz falls through a floor and literally lands on a dead body. Not knowing what else to do, because calling the cops will only lead to them being denied access to their secret playground, they decide to bury the body, but not before Ricky steals the money from the dead man’s wallet and takes a look at his ID. This course of action brings the group to the attention of Tarantula Man, the leader of a local criminal gang, the Ghost Boys, who wants to know what happened to his friend. The children are in danger, but don’t trust an adult to help them out.

Ricky’s only saviour is Floyd, a homeless man who seems to be the boy’s guardian angel. Then there’s Mr Vale, and his son Charley, who seem to want to help, but may have an agenda of their own.

Jason Beech has an amazing way with words and characters. His evocative turn of phrase, and his ability to guide us through this story from Ricky’s point of view is breathtaking in its simplicity and execution. You can sense the impending doom from the very first chapter, and this feeling never goes away even in the novel’s quiter moments. City of Forts is beautifully paced throughout, and every character is given their moment to shine. By the time the book comes to a close, each of their lives have changed, not always for the better, it has to be said. Each of their actions demand consequences. Jason Beech is wise enough to allow his characters grow and become young adults. What they do with this new-found maturity is a story for another day. City of Forts is a compelling coming-of-age story, that crosses over into crime fiction, with teenage characters that are likeable and frustrating, just as they should be.

2020 and All That.

2020 has been the most challenging year many of us have ever faced. Even if we haven’t lost someone close to us, we know someone or a family who has. It’s been a lot. But while the new year won’t bring us a hallelujah moment immediately, it’s important to note that although the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away, we’re moving ever closer to it. We still have to take care of ourselves and those around us, and not do anything silly that could jeopardise our futures.

I’m not going to get all introspective. We each have our own stories to tell about year about to pass, some more heart-breaking than others. But we’re still here. We survived so far. And 2021 is right around the corner.

I’m not one for New Year Resolutions. In fact I got very little done during the year, and it was only in the last month that I put myself in front of my laptop and created this blog. I count that as a win. I read plenty of books, and my TBR pile is gargantuan. But I’ll get through most of them.

Authors and their agents have begun emailing me and DMing me on Twitter, politely requesting reviews for their currently published and upcoming books. I’m cockahoop with joy about this. I intend to get through as many as I can, taking into account I’ve got my own stuff to do this year. (Yes, 2021 will be the year I finish my own novel’s first and, if I’m diligent, second draft of the novel that’s been in my head and computer for years.) I owe it to myself to do this. So, I’ve plenty to look forward to. I think we all need a goal for 2021, even if that goal is personal rather than professional.

I hope that we can, sometime in 2021, go see a movie, eat out at restaurants, and be close to family and friends. We’re human, and there’s nothing more human than being around other people who make us feel good. A lot of us haven’t seen our parents, grandparents, andsignificant others for a long time. But we need to hold out just a little while longer. The wait, I know, will be worth it. We have to do better for ourselves and each other. Also we need to be kind to ourselves and each other. Events of the last year have changed us: it is my hope that they’ve changed us for the better. Time will tell.

So, for my part, I will continue to read, write, and take better care of myself. I have a feeling 2021 will be a banner year for me and the people I love and care about. Let each of us do our part. Live. Learn. Love. Read. Listen to music. Dance and sing. Let us be responsible. Let us welcome in 2021 with hope, but never forget the lessons of 2020.

Happy New Year to you and yours. I’ll see you on the other side for more book reviews, book-related essays, and of course, my attempt to read The Count of Monte Cristo a few chapters at a time. Stay tuned.