Tag Archives: Crime Fiction

Five Strangers by E.V. Adamson

E.V Adamson is the pseudonym of British writer Andrew Wilson, the bestseller author of four novels which feature Agatha Christie as a detective early in her career as a writer of popular detective fiction. I read the first two and thoroughly enjoyed them. So when I heard he was writing a psychological thriller under a different name, I was excited to get a hold of a copy from NetGalley. Already published in the UK, Five Strangers comes out in the U.S. on 19 October. It’s a book I highly recommend, coming on the heels of such female-led psychological thrillers like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. In fact, Five Strangers relies quite heavily–and effectively, in my opinion–on the kind of POV writing that made Paula Hawkins’ and Gillian Flynn’s novels so successful: the unreliable narrator.

Jen Hunter is on Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, waiting for her friend Rebecca (Bex) to arrive for a coffee date. It’s Valentine’s Day and couples are being all smoochy and loved up. Jen is not long out of a five-year relationship with Laurence. To say it ended badly is an understatement. To add to her woes, Jen was once the celebrated author of a popular series of confessional journalistic pieces in a major newspaper, until her boss discovered that she lied about how her parents died in an earlier piece. She was fired on the spot, and now Jen has no job, no Laurence, and nothing to look forward to in life. But at least she has Bex, right?

Things take a horrific and tragic turn on the Hill when Jen and four other people witness a man, Daniel, argue with his girlfriend, Vicky. He breaks a bottle of champagne and shoves it in the poor woman’s face. If that wasn’t violent enough, he then produces a knife and slashes her throat, leaving Vicky to bleed out on the ground. One of the witness, Jamie, attempts to save the girl and is injured in the process. But before the police arrive, Daniel slashes his own throat and dies before another witness, Ayesha, a doctor just out of medical training, can save him. Another witness, Steven, a Black teenager, runs off before he can give a statement to the police. The last witness is Julia Jones, the local Labour MP, is horrified but there’s nothing she can do to save the situation. Bex arrives just in time to help Jen, knowing that her friend is already in a fragile state of mind.

The one other mystery is the jogger who saw what happened but continued their run without lending assistance. The police urge for him or her to come forward. Jen’s journalistic instincts take hold. Urged by Bex and another close friend, her housemate Penelope, Jen wants to find out why Daniel killed Vicky and then himself, and also discover the identity of the unhelpful jogger. She starts getting tweets from a mysterious Twitter account that suggests that all is not what it appears to be. Bex knows that the more Jen delves into the murder suicide, the greater the chance that her friend will spiral into a breakdown she might not come out of.

Five Strangers is told from both Jen and Bex’s point of view, in alternating chapters. In ways similar to Gone Girl, we get both sides of the story–until the midway twist puts a completely different spin on everything we’ve read until then. Even the witnesses have secrets they’d prefer not to see the light of day. Jen interviews each of them in turn, and discovers allies and foes around every corner. But who is telling the truth? And who among them is hiding the deepest secret of all? I read this book at a feverish pace because I was desperate to find out.

Adamson/Wilson has written a compelling tale of murder, deceit, and the ultimate betrayal. It’s not the first book I’ve read this year in which childhood trauma and fears of abandonment have been behind the characters’ heinous actions, but it’s probably the best and hardest-hitting. While at times I struggled to find sympathy with Jen and Bex, I think the author wanted it that way. There is no black and white when it comes to Jen, Bex, Laurence, and the four witnesses, just many shades of grey.

Author Andrew Wilson/E.V. Adamson

Asylum by Tamera Lawrence

Tamera Lawrence is an author I’m going to look out for in the future. Let’s just get that out of the way. She has a way with creating deep, dark, pervading atmospheres; and her sense of place and character is quite simply breathtaking and intense.

The subject matter of Asylum is an uncomfortable one. Many countries have their own mostly hidden histories when it comes to mental institutions, orphanages, and how they treat the less entitled and vulnerable among us. I think I hit it on the head when I typed “hidden”, because that’s what happens to people who end up in these places: they’re lost to the rest of us. Just Google ‘Magdalene Laundries’ and ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ in Ireland and you’ll get the full picture.

Kyle Hampton was born and grew up in one of these places, Rose Hill Asylum, in Pennsylvania. His mother had a learning disability and was subject to a lot of abuse in her time there. When she died at a young age, Kyle was lucky enough to be adopted by Scott Hampton and his wife Florence. He left behind his brother Roy, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in decades. Married to Beth, with a young baby named Samantha, Kyle has kept many secrets and struggles in his adult life, as you would perhaps understand. His best friend is Randy, another former Rose Hill inmate, and together they explore the underground tunnels of the soon to be redeveloped former aylum. A chance encounter with a pair of boots set the novel on its path, leaving Kyle and his family heading into danger with someone by the name of Stitches.

Stitches, who’s eventual identity is both surprising and foreshadowed, is an intriguing character. You could write him off as being pure evil, but even evil has to come from somewhere. His appearance and actions brought to mind Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning role in the movie Joker. Stitches loves to dress up as a clown and act out his dark fantasies. If you’re looking for another reason to be fearful of jesters, then Asylum is definitely for you.

Kyle has to face up to his past and reconcile with his wife if he’s to live further than the end of the book. How Tamera Lawrence kept my attention was by allowing her characters to dictate the story. Yes, you will probably end up questioning why they do what they do, but we humans are invariable driven by the ghosts of our past and don’t always make the kind of decions that are in our best interests. Kyle, Randy, Stitches, and even Beth, are held captive by childhood memories, and as Asylum draws to its intense and perilous climax, the past and present collide violently.

Asylum rattles along at a furous pace, but Lawrence allows us important insights into each of her characters. You will be glad to have read this book, but horrified that events that occured in Rose Hill Asylum are not as fictional as you would hope. In fact, the truth behind many of these kind of institutions is worse than any writer can think of.

Author Tamera Lawrence

The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

I wonder if readers of this blog will remember a show which premiered in the US in 1974. It was called Petrocelli, and it was about a defence lawyer who lived in a house trailer in San Remo, Arizona. All through the two seasons the show was on, Tony Petrocelli and his wife Maggie toiled away with building a house for themselves near their trailer home. Viewers never got to see the finished product because the show finished airing after these two seasons. When I read an Eddie Flynn novel from Northern Ireland author Steve Cavanagh, I always think of Petrocelli. He took the cases in which his client appeared guilty as sin, looking for holes in the prosecution’s evidence, and upon finding them, exonerate his clients in the eyes of the law. What happened after that was of no concern to Petrocelli. His job was done once his client got released.

I loved Petrocelli and I recently rewatched the pilot episode. It still stands up. Barry Newman is a good actor and the stories were always compelling. I happened upon Steve Cavanagh‘s creation a couple of years ago and found myself reading the first four books in the Eddie Flynn series one after the other. They are tightly plotted novels, with enough twists and turns to make your hair stand on end. Forever getting into scrapes that threaten his life and the lives of those he cares about, Eddie uses his ingenuity and skills as a one-time con-artist to help his clients who would otherwise be incarcerated for life or worse.

The Devil’s Advocate is the sixth book in the series and for my money it’s the best yet. The stakes for Eddie, his team, and his client are high: literally life and death. But Eddie is well out of his comfort zone. Used to the hustle and bustle of New York streets, police stations, and courtrooms, Eddie is in a backwater town of Buckstown, Alabama, a relic of the Confederacy era, where the local District Attorney Randall Korn has sent more convicted murderers to the electric chair than any other DA in US history. Eddie is approached by a ‘frenemy’ from a previous case and asked to take on the defence of Andy Dubois, a young Black man whose been accused of the murder of his colleague and friend, a popular girl called Skylar Edwards. Andy’s previous lawyer, who’s already had dealings with Korn, is missing under suspicious circumstances, and the young man seems destined to be found guilty and sentenced to death. Eddie has never taken on a capital murder case before, but it’s not long before he and his team, Kate, Harry, and Bloch find that all is not what it seems with the prosecution’s case. Plus, if Andy didn’t brutally murder Skylar, the question is: who did?

Steve Cavanagh (photo c/o: Belfast Live)

For fans of Steve Cavanagh and Eddie Flynn, there’s no need for me to tell you to get on out there and buy this book. Chances are you already have it preordered. But for the unconverted, let me tell you that this book, and the others in the series, are a delight to read. What sets The Devil’s Advocate apart from previous novels is not just the change of scenery, but Cavanagh allows the supporting characters to share the spotlight in many sections of the story. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Bloch, Eddie’s investigator: you do not want to mess with this woman. The Rogue Gallery is especially strong, too. Not only does Eddie and his team have to contend with Randall Korn, but the sheriff of Buckstown is a force to be reckoned with, too, despite and because of his own tragic backstory. And then there’s the mysterious Pastor. We don’t find out his identity until the climax of the novel, and what a surprise that turns out to be. So, not only do the good guys have to deal with an insidious district attorney, they also find themselves up against the worst of the worst: domestic terrorists and white supremacists. The Devil’s Advocate will rock your boat. I defy you to finish it in fewer than three or four sittings.

Thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with an ARC of The Devil’s Advocate in exchange for an honest review.

Her Ocean Grave by Dana Perry

It is said, though I do not know the source of the quote, that a brave soldier never looks back. I take this to mean that it’s a bad move generally to revisit past glories and/or failures, and that one should always look face forward. The past has passed; it’s history; what’s done is done and there’s no need to dwell on what might have happened if circumstances and feelings were different. If this was indeed the case, then therapists would be out of business and writers would run out of material to write about. Sometimes, though, we find that, in the end, we have no choice but to look back and consider our life choices in relation to where we are now.

Her Ocean’s Grave is the first book in a new crime fiction series from author Dana Perry. In it, she introduces a compelling new character who comes to realise that returning to where it all began is the most important step many of us need to take if we are to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Abby Pearse faces this kind of dilemma when, after a decorated career in the New York Police Department comes to a tragic end, she finds herself back in her hometown of Cedar’s Cliff, Martha’s Vineyard as the island’s police force’s sole detective. While not exactly a hotbed of crime, Abby has enough to keep her going, despite not fitting in and others being suspicious of her position and notoriety. But Abby knows her job, and when a young girl goes missing, Abby wastes no time getting to the truth of what happened to Samantha Claymore.

Abby’s personal life is a bit of a mess. Recently divorced, she struggles with an alcohol addiction that follows her around like a shadow. Bouts of sobriety are punctuated with blow-outs which cost Abby both her marriage and her position in the NYPD. Coming home hasn’t really helped because she’s estranged from her mother, who’s in a nursing home, and her father has been dead for some time. The only person she feels she can talk to is her father’s ex-business partner Stan Larsen, whom she calls ‘Uncle Stan’. Memories of past events haunt her as she patrols the streets of Cedar’s Cliff, with one particular traumatic incident rearing its ugly head during the course of her investigation into Samantha’s disappearance.

Abby must form a working relationship with Teena Morelli, a uniformed cop who resents Abby for taking the detective job she felt was hers by right. She doesn’t know whether or not she can trust her boss, Chief Wilhelm, because of his past association with Samantha’s father who died in suspicious circumstances years earlier. And then there’s Lincoln Connor, a local journalist looking for a big scoop, whose presence is an unwanted distraction in Abbey’s life and investigation. With a number of characters who have secrets of their own, Abby has a lot on her plate sorting the good guys out from the bad.

The plot has a pleasing amount of twists and red herrings, more than enough to satisfy fans of crime fiction and police procedurals in particular, and will certainly have you flying through the chapters until the end. I feel there is more to come from Abby Pearse, not just in the way of crimes to investigate but in her personal development. At the end of Her Ocean’s Grave, Dana Perry sheds a little light on Abby’s history and suggests that the detective’s greatest battles and triumphs are ahead of her.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers of Her Ocean’s Grave for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Her Last Holiday by C.L. Taylor

Picture a time in your life, if you would. You’re thisclose to a nervous breakdown, and your family is as helpful as a court summons — they’re the root cause of all your problems anyway. What are you to do? You’re going to need help, right? A little counselling will go a long way, but you just need to find the right people to guide you. So the internet becomes your friend, and very soon you’ve signed up to a few days in the sun with like-minded messed-up individuals, ready to throw caution to the wind and your worries into the sea. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Well, it would be, if you didn’t end up missing, presumed dead, with your life coach in prison for negligent homicide. This is what happened to Jenna Fitzgerald.

Jenna joins a group called ShrinkSoul, a self-help organisation run by Tom Wade and his wife Kate. They’re a kind of internet sensation who supposedly help people in crisis to attain better control over themselves and their lives. Tom oozes charisma and is the handsome face of ShrinkSoul. Kate runs the business and micro-manages her husband every step of the way. Jenna is attracted to what they have to offer, as well has being drawn to Tom in other ways. Her Last Holiday, the latest psychological thriller from bestselling author C.L. Taylor (The Fear, Sleep, Strangers), is a fast-moving, page-turning read that examines, amidst the confusion and drama, how domestic violence, whether physical, verbal, or both, turns lives upside down and make the most confident person in the room tremble at the very mention of ‘family’.

The story begins with Tom being released from a two-year stretch behind bars due to the accidental deaths of two people at a retreat on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, off the coast of Malta. Jenna went missing, and the coroner confirmed that she more than likely took her own life. No one was ever charged with her disappearance. Kate, meanwhile, has had to start from scratch, but she sees an opportunity to take advantage of Tom’s release and pretty soon they’re both back in the self-help business. Jenna’s sister Fran is sent by her mother Geraldine to investigate the new organisation, and tasked with finding out exactly what happened to Jenna. She’s been booked to participate in a retreat in Wales.

Her Last Holiday is told in three distinct points of view. Fran is the leading character and we learn a lot about her and her relationships with Jenna and her family as we go along. Jenna’s voice comes from just before her disappearance; we meet her as she and her fellow travellers-in-life land in Malta. Kate is the last PoV. Her story is complex, and we see her working through her post-trial anxiety, welcoming her husband back home, and then immediately kickstarting the organisation once more. Her story within Her Last Holiday is, for me, the one I found the most engrossing. Overall, though, the different perspectives and changes of tense worked throughout.

C.L. Taylor (Image c/o The Scotsman)

The twists (for there are always twists), when they come, are earned. Some you’ll see coming; others you won’t. But my favourite parts of the book were the one-to-one therapy sessions. Despite lying about herself to get there, Fran opens up to Tom about her life, and we learn about the dominant and oftentimes abusive figure of her and Jenna’s mother Geraldine. The supporting characters are decently fleshed out, and more than a few of them are relevant to the plot. I enjoyed reading about Phoenix, Joy, Renata, and Damian. If I take one thing from reading C.L. Taylor’s book, it’s that while we’re all a little messed up, we are so mainly because of family.

I received a free copy of Her Last Holiday from NetGalley and the publishers, in return for an honest review.

The Eddie Flynn Series by Steve Cavanagh

I was brought up on crime thrillers. Nothing excited me more than watching the good guys catch the bad guys, and getting them put away for murder and fraud. I also enjoyed thrillers where an innocent person needed help to clear their name. I watched old shows like Petrocelli, where a low-key defence attorney who lived in a trailer used his skills and intellect to get his clients cleared of crimes they did not commit. (Occasionally he got it wrong, but he always stuck to the law.)

Modern shows like Law & Order, in all its incarnations, focus on both law enforcement and criminal justice, and are equally compelling in presenting the thrills and spills of the legal system. It’s deeply flawed nationally and internationally, but when it comes to fiction writing, the genre lends itself to providing many, many hours of entertainment. The current HBO show, Perry Mason, is testament to how popular crime and courtroom dramas are and will remain.

Belfast native Steve Cavanagh is a writer who’s currently riding high on the success of a series of electric and exciting novels about New York lawyer Eddie Flynn. To say Eddie is offbeat and eccentric is to do an injustice to a man who uses every trick in the book and under his sleeve to win a case, normally at great cost to himself and those around him. A former con-man and street hustler, Eddie was driven to use his skills in misdirection to help his mother during a medical insurance case.

The first novel proper in the series is The Defence. Eddie’s personal life is a mess, and he’s lost his way in life, but he’s dragged back into court with a bomb strapped to his body, and his daughter’s life in danger. Forced to defend the head of the Russian Mafia in New York, Eddie is in a literal race against time. And did I mention he’s also got a drinking problem? All of this in the first couple of chapters, too. Cavanagh wastes little time on the niceties, and we’re all the better for it. Of course, Eddie realises that no matter what he does, he’s toast, just like his former partner. So he draws on his experience on the streets and in the courtroom, and with the help of a friendly judge, uses the 48 hours he’s been given to turn the tables on his new employers. The book is high-octane, a page turner, and Eddie has always one more trick to play. The pace never lags.

Steve Cavanagh (Credit: Kelly M Photography)

After finishing The Defence, I picked up the other four available books in the series. In The Plea, the FBI and CIA blackmail Eddie into defending a client who’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend. The agencies want Eddie to get the accused man to admit his guilt and take a plea. But Eddie knows there’s more going on. In order to protect his estranged wife, who’s unknowingly tied to a money laundering scheme, he has to go head-to-head with a highly ambitious district attorney who looks down on Eddie as being unworthy of his time. This is another excellent thriller, and Cavanagh lays on the surprises and twists with dexterity.

The Liar continues the trend, with another serpentine story involving Eddie defending an acquaintance from his younger days who’s been charged with the kidnapping and murder of his own daughter. Convinced of his friend’s innocence, Eddie works the case while also helping out the friendly judge, Harry Ford, whose career is in jeopardy due to another lawyer who has demanded the release of casework on a trial the judge was working on. The Liar introduces Agent Harper of the FBI, who eventually works side-by-side with Eddie as the twists come chapter after chapter. Both plots are connected and Eddie and co. have to find out how.

My persona favourite of the series is Thirteen. Eddie is at the centre of the celebrity murder trial of the century. Bobbie Solomon, a movie star, is charged with the murders of his wife and security guard, and Eddie takes on his defence. The twist in this book is that a serial killer, known only as Kane, has found their way onto the jury. This is a premise that can only come from the mind of Steve Cavanagh. There are echoes, however faint, of John Grisham here, but Cavanagh takes his level of plotting to another universe. He mixes the chapters with first person narrative from Eddie himself, and the sinister voice of the killer. The clues as to who this person is are laid out throughout the book, so that when the big reveal comes, we’re not tricked. Bamboozled, stunned, yes; but not taken for fools. Thirteen is glorious.

The last (for now) is Fifty-Fifty, the premise of which is deceptively simple. Two sisters, Alexandra and Sofia Avellino, are accused of the murder of their father. Each blames the other for the crime. At the centre is a $44,000,000 inheritance. The sister found innocent will get the lot. The other goes to prison for life. Eddie represents Sofia, while another lawyer, Kate Brooks represents Alexandra. As in the previous novel, the guilty party, ‘She’, gets chapters to herself. So which of the two lawyers is on the winning side? Cavanagh once again piles layers upon layers of twists, surprises, intrigues, and a shocking death midway through adds to the punchy storyline.

I am in awe of Steve Cavanagh. From the first book till now, with a new one due out hopefully this year, I haven’t read anything near as compulsive and propulsive as the Eddie Flynn novels. He leaves the likes of Grisham and co. for dust.

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.

Alter Ego by K.A. Masson

Any book that name checks Matt Johnson’s The The, and in particular Uncertain Smile, has got to have a lot of things going for it, right? In fact, this book, Alter Ego, the debut thriller from English writer K.A. Masson, is peppered with plenty of musical references throughout its taut narrative, with two of the story’s main characters at one point going through their Spotify playlists and cranking out some banging tunes, with no decade being left out. But it was the The The reference that sat with me. I haven’t listened to this band for some time, and when I’m done writing this review, I will queue up Soul Mining and get all nostalgic.

(Image: heyitscarlyrae.com)

Alexandra (Alex) Kendrew is a single mother who lives with her young son Ned in suburban London. Estranged from the boy’s father Sean for some time when the novel begins, Alex trawls dating websites looking for love and someone to settle down with. She’s a freelance photographer who juggles her professional and personal life, and during the course of the story, drops balls on a regular basis. Some of her friends question her lifestyle choices and parenting skills, but Alex knows what she’s doing.

Or does she?

When Alter Ego begins, Alex is arrested for the attempted murder of her boyfriend Mal Russell, who was brutally stabbed the night before in the flat he shares with a friend. Alex has been identified by said friend as the woman who she admitted to the flat and subsequently stabbed Mal. Alex doesn’t believe what’s happened to her. There is no way she could’ve done what she’s accused of. She was at home with Ned. The detectives investigating the case don’t believe her, and lock her up in a cell while they collect enough evidence to charge her. Alex’s arrest happens in the first chapter, so there’s an immediacy to the story already. What the author does next is take us back four years and work us through Alex’s life until the time of her arrest.

Alex hooks up with a couple of men she met online, some better than others, but lands on Mal, who appears to be the man of her dreams. Things go pear-shaped quickly when Ned wanders in and catches them in an private but awkward moment. As Mal still holds a candle for a recent ex, he ghosts Alex shortly afterwards. She is distraught, but manages to pick herself up off the floor when Adrian comes into her life. Then things take a really nasty turn, with Adrian turning out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not for the first time, Alex is left with a mess to sort out, but desperate to not be alone, she jumps at the chance of salvation when Mal comes back into her life.

I’ll leave it at that for the plot, for fear of giving too much away. I would prefer to leave you in the more than capable hands of K.A. Masson to take it from here. I had to remind myself that Alter Ego is a debut novel, because it reads like Ms. Masson has had a number of novels under her belt already. She is masterful at holding the story together despite having to fill in a lot of blanks over a four year period. The tension rises with each chapter, and I confess to reading the last third of the book in one late night sitting. I had to find out what happened, and I wasn’t disappointed.

K.A. Masson

One proviso, though: Alex as a character may not appeal to those who prefer their main characters whiter than white, with nary a blemish to their name. But for me, it was important to relate to Alex as a woman troubled by her past and fearful of her future. At times she is the author of her own misfortune, making the same mistakes in dating time and again, without really learning from past behaviour. This is a completely human characteristic. We want things to go well for ourselves, and when our friends point out our failures, we can sometimes take this criticism as a personal insult rather than a learning moment. Ms Masson does well by giving us a deep insight into Alex’s thought processes with her tight first person point of view. We see what Alex sees; we feel what she does; and we want her to do better. She could — and this is something to keep in mind — be an unreliable narrator. Not everthing that happens is what it seems; the same applies to the people around her.

Alter Ego is an intelligent psychological thriller with moments of violence that will make you uncomfortable. Domestic violence is a blight on modern society, and the author brings a lot of research into her story. I seriously look forward to what she writes next.

I wish to thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Alter Ego in return for an honest review.

Childhood Christmas Books

I think I was about six or seven years old when I found out there was no real Santa Claus. I shrugged when the realisation hit me. It came about when I found a bag of books and toys hidden in my parents’ wardrobe (don’t ask me what I was looking for at the time; I can’t remember). My mother found out and came clean. To be honest, I was more interested in the books.

I can’t recall what titles they were. I just know that at the time I read pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, from The Famous Five to The Secret Seven, and beyond. (I stayed away from Noddy because he just wasn’t my thing.) I loved the adventure, the derring-do, and the sheer upper-class Britishness of Blyton’s books despite me being Irish, and I don’t think there was an Irish writer at the time who did what Blyton was doing. I am ready to be corrected, though. This is just my memory.

Every Christmas I would get books from my parents. About a month before the holidays I was given x amount of money to spend on books, and I would walk up to a nearby shopping centre where the only bookstore within a manageable distance was located. The store was called Books Unlimited and there I found a corner of joy in a world that was at the time, in the mid-to-late 1970s, going mad. (SPOILER: It’s still going mad.) As the seasons passed, my reading tastes changed. I left Enid behind and graduated straight to adult class literature. Smugglers Top was replaced by the Orient Express and mysterious goings-on at Styles. I devoured Agatha Christie, who is to this day, the best-selling crime novelist of all time. My wife and I would listen to podcasts dedicated to Dame Agatha’s books, particularly All About Agatha, hosted by Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck. My wife would also listen to Christmas themed stories on audio at night time. (I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard Hercules Poirot and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding this month.)

Later years would see me pick up every action thriller written by the great Alistair MacLean. I’m sure many of you will have seen the movie adaptations of some MacLean’s books, especially The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, but the books are where it all began. He was a prolific writer, and while his characters and dialogue would be considered tropish in this day and age, you can imagine the thrill I got when I started a new story. At the time, there was no writer like him, even if the likes of Len Deighton and Hammond Innes were, without question, better at the craft.

Then, with the popularity of horror fiction coming in the wake of the blockbusting success of The Exorcist and The Omen, I read books of terror and dread into the small hours of the morning. I discovered Graham Masterton, who still publishes to this day. (In fact, I have a new book by Masterton on my NetGalley shelf, which I will read and review ahead of its publication this coming February.)

So, for me, Christmas was as much about new books as it was about food and family. And I love to think back to how it all started, with Enid, with Agatha, with Alistair, and how I looked forward to finally getting my hands on the books that had been bought by me and for me in the run up to Christmas Day. This year I can’t wait to open up the present I bought myself. More on that later.

Amid Rage by Joel Burcat

Mike Jacobs is a young, up-and-coming litigator in environmental law, working for the Department of Environmental Protection in the state of Pennsylvania. He knows his job, is diligent, and can go rogue now and again, working behind his boss’ back and against standard protocol to ensure the law protecting the land and the citizens that live on it are safe-guarded. Professionally he’s got what it takes. Personally, though, his life is messy.

Amid Rage is the second book in PA author Joel Burcat’s Mike Jacobs series, the first being Drink To Every Beast, which was published in May, 2019. I’ve yet to read the first book, but happily Amid Rage is enough of a stand-alone novel that doesn’t require the reader needing too much prior information: Joel Burcat fills in the blanks early on in proceedings, allowing you to plow ahead with what is quite a page-turning story.

It beings violently, with the death of a mining inspector: he’s burned to death in his home by the villain of the piece, Ernie Rinati, the owner of Rhino, a mining company. Rinati isn’t getting what he wants from the DEP, with too many conditions placed on his operations, rendering him unable to make the kind of money he feels he deserves. He’s not above pressuring homeowners into buying up their property at knock-down prices, either. Basically he’s a vile human being, valuing the life of his three-legged dog Butch over anything or anyone else. Unfortunately, though, he’s a one-note and rather cartoonish villain.

Joel Burcat’s speciality, however, is in the court room. A practicing environmental lawyer himself, the Philadelphia native brings his experience to the table, giving us courtside seats to the legal wrangles regarding permits and temporary restraining orders (TROs). All of this wouldn’t be half as exciting if there wasn’t a decent story to tell, and Burcat has one, thank goodness. At the centre of the plot is a piece of land that Rinati wants to mine on. In his way are people who own homes on that land. The DEP has allowed Rinati some leeway, but not enough. The homeowners resist his efforts and have hired an inexperienced lawyer, Miranda Clymer, to lead their lawsuit. Mike’s orders are to act as observer only, but a startling bit of sexual blackmail forces Mike to take a more active role than his department allows. (I did mention that Mike’s personal life is messy as hell, right?)

So he’s on his own, although he does, in all fairness, inspire a couple of close friends, Ben and Nicky, to help him out. If it wasn’t for the fact that Rinati is obviously insane, and has henchmen that would make Darth Vader question his choice in allies, Mike would have an easy time of it. But no! Danger lurks in every chapter of this fast-moving, and for the most part, engrossing thriller. Saying Mike Jacobs is just a lawyer is like saying Indiana Jones is just an archaeologist. Mike’s pursuit of the truth gets him and his friends into a lot of trouble, with Nicky especially feeling the full force of Rinati’s vengeance. Parts were uncomfortable to read, but in the end I see what Burcat was aiming for. In fairness, I would’ve preferred if he drew his characterisation of women better;in many instances men, including Mike Jacobs, spent far too much energy ogling their physical characteristics to the point of fantasism and wishful thinking. They’re strong characters in their own right, but I felt they needed their own agency rather than being at the beck and call and the subject of abuse from their male counterparts. Still, it was good to see such abusers get what they deserve.

Joel Burcat

Burcat brings the story to life with principled and unprincipled attorneys. I like how Mike has to deal with people from his past who haven’t made his life and career any easier for him. Watch out for Judge Diaz and Sidney Feldman. It’s in the courtroom scenes that this novel really comes to life. The action scenes are well done, too. But it’s the personal bits, where Mike questions his choices in love and romance, that need a bit more spark and care. I like Mike a lot. He has a lot to learn, but he’s willing to work hard, and he makes it up as he goes sometimes. Which is what most of us are doing right now, I guess. I give Burcat praise for writing a book that I pretty much enjoyed reading. I expect him to get better the more he writes and publishes.

I thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Amid Range prior to publication (Feb 2021) in return for an honest review.