Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens - a review


The Blurb
 Sketches by Boz is a collection of short pieces published by Charles Dickens in 1836. Dickens' career as a writer of fiction truly began with this collection in 1833, when he started writing humorous sketches for The Morning Chronicle, using the pen-name "Boz". The sketch "Mr. Minns and his Cousin" (originally titled "A Dinner at Poplar Walk") was the first piece of fiction that Dickens ever had published.

The Review
Although not a novel, more a collection of short pieces - as the blurb says - Sketches by Boz - does have a certain continuous narrative. The first section contains a collection of vignettes entitled Our Parish, and describes certain personages inhabiting the parishes of the London of the late Georgian/ early Victorian period. The second part is entitled Scenes and concentrates more on individual scenes, for instance, The Streets - morning, The Streets - night, The River, etc. Part Three is entitled, Characters, and begin to read more like short stories, combining the focus of Part One and Part Two. Part Four - taking up a good half of the book - breaks out entirley into short stories, entitled as it is, Tales.

Dickens was famed as a the sharpest of the political commentators of the time, and his cutting wit is displayed on every line of the book - with many laugh out loud moments. Dickens perenial themes of poverty, social inequality, and the plight of children are present throughout. The writing, of course, is not just insightful and playful, but utterly beautiful.  

The vignettes and tales present scenes and characters in misunderstandings, clashes of class situations and expectations of the male of the species being unflatteringly, and quite rightly, rebutted. All is, more or less, light and fluffy. Until we get to the very final tale in the book, entitled The Drunkard's Death. This story is by far the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read. The tale tells the demise of an unnamed man due to his dependence on alcohol, his children, his wife, his life itself, all falling victim to his addiction. Here is an extract:

'At last, one bitter night, he sank down on a door-step faint and ill. The premature decay of vice and profligacy had worn him to the bone. His cheeks were hollow and livid; his eyes were sunken, and their sight was dim. His legs trembled beneath his weight, and a cold shiver ran through every limb.

And now the long-forgotten scenes of a misspent life crowded thick and fast upon him. He thought of the time when he had a home - a happy, cheerful home - and of those who peopled it, and flocked about him then, until the forms of his elder children seemed to rise from the grave, and stand about him - so plain, so clear, and so distinct they were he could touch and feel them. Looks that he had long forgotten were fixed upon him once more; voices long since hushed in death sounded in his ears like the music of village bells. But it was only for an instant. The rain beat heavily upon him; and cold and hunger were gnawing at his heart again.'

Just so bleak. Of course, the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. And Dickens does not reach for sentiment, even at the last . . .

'A week afterwards the body was washed ashore, some miles down the river, a swollen and disfigured mess. Unrecognised and unpitied. It was borne to the grave; and there it has long since mouldered away.'

Harsh and beautiful, insightful and hilarious. Sketches by Boz is a wonderful collection of Dickens writing. And, as the world knows, just the very beginning . . .

Sketches by Boz is available from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Death Games, by Chris Simms - a review

The Blurb
 Manchester: an injured survivor from a motorway pile-up flees the scene, leaving behind evidence that a terror attack is being planned…

Jon Spicer, newly trained as a Specialist Firearms Officer, has joined Manchester police’s Counter Terrorism Unit. Thrown out of his previous department and demoted to Detective Constable, he is being kept in the force only because he’ll take on the most dangerous of jobs.

Iona Khan is struggling to find respect and recognition in the male-dominated Counter Terrorism Unit. Her mind might be sharp, but many of her colleagues value physical strength above anything else.

As the investigation quickly snowballs, Spicer and Khan are thrown together. The two officers must learn to trust each other – and fast. Because in this chase, any wrong move could be your last.


The Review
Death Games is Book 8 in the Jon Spicer series, which makes its freshness all the more impressive. The novel starts with a bang - literally - a motorway pile-up just outside Manchester - and the pace doesn't let up for a single second. Simms eye for detail is astounding. The level of detail in the book is of such a high level, I was convinced he must have served in Northern Ireland at one point, had surely been employed as a member of the Counter Terrorism Unit at another stage in his career, and most likely had spent many years in North Wales due to his intimate knowledge of the geography. But no. Reading up about Chris Simms, it seems none of these are true. This book shows what a writer can do with diligent research, intelligently implemented.

As one must expect from a character leading the line in his eighth outing, Spicer is very well drawn. I love his humanity, and the enigmatic way in which Simms alludes to his history. In fact every character in this book is as solid as can be, and every character has a role to play. The sign of a writer in full control of his craft.

The writing itself fits the genre superbly. It is muscular, and has real energy. The interactions between the characters are fully realised within a plot that is tight and realistic.

Chris Simms is a writer of genuine pedigree. In 2007, he was selected as a Waterstones Author for the Future’ and his novel Savage Moon was shortlisted for the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. Simms has also been described as "one of the best of the new generation" by The Guardian.

In Death Games, Simms has penned a hugely enjoyable, contemporary thriller that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Death Games is available from Amazon UK here and from Amazon US here 

 Chris Simms was born in 1969 and grew up in rural Sussex. After graduating from Newcastle University, he worked in a variety of jobs before landing his first publishing contract with Random House for OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES. This was followed by another dark psychological thriller, PECKING ORDER. Chris then moved to Orion where he commenced the DI Jon Spicer series with KILLING THE BEASTS. This was followed by SHIFTING SKIN, SAVAGE MOON and then HELL'S FIRE. In 2007 Chris was selected by Waterstone’s as one of their, "25 Authors for the Future"; one of twenty five writers tipped by publishers, editors and agents, "to produce the most impressive body of work over the next quarter century".

For all things Chris Simms, pop over to the official website at chrissimms.info



Saturday, 7 January 2017

Lad, by Andrew Webber - a review

THE BLURB
 Danny Small loves life just the way it is...

It's a cheeky Nando's. It's a big sesh down the gym. It's double shots of Sambuca. It's a scrap at closing time. It's a few Stellas before kick off. It's larging it in Marbella. It's not being tied down. It's working hard and playing harder. It's a relentless cycle of booze, birds and banter. It's the lad's life.

...but when everyone else is growing up and moving on, life in the fast lane gets pretty lonely.

Danny's mates are settling down. Girls are demanding commitment. His boss is onto his schemes. Even his mum's on his case. Does the banter finally have to stop, or does a real lad just crank it up a notch?

THE REVIEW
I read and reviewed Andrew Webber's novella - Today - earlier last year, so to speak. When I heard he'd released  - Lad - his debut novel, I knew it was going to be good. And I wasn't wrong.

Danny Small is a real Jack-the-Lad of a character. Estate agent by day, self-obsessed, self-preening Lothario every other minute he is a awake. He treats women as sex objects to fill his diary, women who, according to Danny, should be grateful for the opportunity. Danny is the definition of hedonism, liking nothing better than going to the gym, getting smashed with the lads, and trawling the night clubs for another notch on his huge bedpost . . .

I tell my writing students if they want to tackle the writing of a novel in the first person narrative, the narrator needs to be strong enough to, literally, carry the entire novel. It needs to feel as if the narrator is sitting in front of you, telling you his tale. Webber achieves this wonderfully well. It is an even greater achievement, considering how odious Danny can be at times. This, make no mistake, is fine, fine writing.

As the novel unfolds, we begin to get a different sense of Danny. We get the feeling there is more to him that meets the eye. There is a sense Danny has a story, that he wasn't always this way. We gain a deeper understanding of Danny, we realise his behaviour is merely a symptom of a deeper loss.

Do we exonerate Danny? It's a challenge, I must admit. But when even Danny realises enough is enough, it becomes easier.

But can one such as Danny ever really change?

Lad is a first rate novel, told by a writer in full command of his craft. I can't wait to see what Webber comes up with next . . . 



Lad is available on Kindle from Amazon UK here and in paperback here

Also available on Kindle from Amazon US here and in paperback here

You can find my review of Webber's Today here

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Devil's Lieutenant, by Shervin Jamil - a review

THE BLURB
In the blink of an eye, Michael loses his family. As his life spirals out of control with grief, he is presented with the possibility that their souls might be trapped in Hell.

Thus begins an unimaginable and nightmarish journey to rescue his family from the depths of Hell, with the Devil as the puppet master pulling his strings.

 THE REVIEW
The Devil's Lieutenant is the debut novella from writer, Shervin Jamali. And, blimey, it packs a punch. Here is a sense of what I mean - from the very opening page:


     I walk into the apartment with my standard greeting.

    'Daddy's home.'

    The scene that greets me would forever be etched into my brain: my five year old son, dead on the floor, laying in a pool of blood; my wife kneeling beside him with a gun in her hands, still smoking, my gun, the one I keep in the bedroom safe.

    'What have you done?'

    She looks up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks. I draw my gun from my holster, and aim for her head, just as she lifts the one she is holding to her mouth. I fire, but so does she, and her bullet accomplishes what mine was intended for. She falls backwards, as my shot blasts through her throat senselessly. I rush to my son, pick him up in my arms, crushing him against my chest, sobbing uncontrollably.

    That was five years ago. I used to be a cop.

Bang. And on it goes. Relentless. But just as you think this is going to be just another one of those noir descents into self-destruction, it all goes supernatural - in a fantasically brilliant way. The Devil turns up. And the Devil wants something from Michael. Oh, Michael will get something in return, so the Devil says, but, you know, this is the Devil talking, offering you something, the only thing, you want. Michael signs up, and bang, bang, bang . . . the pages turn and the Devil gets his way.


As a writer, Jamali puts me in mind of the brilliant Josh Stallings and his incredible Moses McGuire trilogy in terms of writing with such courage, such brutality, yet such humanity. Yes, this book is violent, and Michael does some violent things, but this is a man that has seen everyone he loves die before him. When the ending comes, the twist that turns the dagger in your gut, you will be floored. As I was.

The Devil's Lieutenant is available from Amazon UK on Kindle here and in paperback here 
Amazon US has the Kindle version here and the paperback edition here

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Gaia Effect, by Claire Buss - a review



The Blurb
In City 42 Corporation look after you from cradle to grave. They protect you from the radiation outside the wall. They control the food, the water, the technology and most important of all, the continuation of the human race. Kira and Jed Jenkins were lucky enough to win Collection but when their friends start falling pregnant naturally, everything changes. How long has Corporation been lying to them? Is it really toxic outside the wall? As the group comes to terms with the changes in their lives they discover there is a much more powerful and ancient force at work, trying to bridge the gap between man and nature.

The Review
The Gaia Effect is not my normal kind of reading, but a thoroughly enjoyable read, nonetheless. Set in a dystopian future where the surviving population live in domed cities protecting them from the radiation outside, a company called Corporation exists to provide the people with everything they desire. Arguably the most important contribution from Corporation is providing a population made sterile by the radiation in the water with lab-grown babies (Corporation provides the people with clean water too). The creativity Buss shows in this regard is brilliant, and terrifying at the same time - a sort of modern day Brave New World. 

Now, no business likes competition. Corporation are no different. So, when three friends all become pregnant by natural means, they are in immediate danger. When the friends begin to speak together of their fears and wonder how this natural conception occurred when everyone is supposed to be sterile, they discover all of them have recently seen a vision of a shimmering blue lady. Once the identity of this blue lady is confirmed, it becomes clear something is happening far more profound than any of them realise.

The Gaia Effect is Buss’ first novel, and speaks of the ancient and the modern, what it is to be dependent upon an overarching, largely anonymous, overseer, and, most of all, what it is to be a woman. The novel chimes with many modern day concerns, and is, I believe, a fascinating debut from an author to look out for in the years to come.

The Gaia Effect is available from Amazon UK on Kindle here and in paperback here, and from Amazon US on Kindle here

Bio
Claire Buss is a science fiction/fantasy writer currently based in Barking, Essex. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with The Gaia Effect and set her writing career in motion.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Graham Smith Blog Tour - Matching the Evidence - a review.





It gives me great pleasure to play my part in the Graham Smith Blog Tour, and present my review of his latest novella - Matching the Evidence.

Here we go . . .

The Blurb
Carlisle United are playing Millwall and the Major Crimes Team are assigned to crowd control as punishment for their renegade ways. Typically DI Harry Evans has other ideas and tries to thwart the local firm’s plans to teach Millwall’s notorious Bushwhackers an unforgettable lesson.

Meanwhile an undercover cop is travelling north with some of the Millwall contingent. His mission is to identify the ringleaders and gather evidence against them.

Three illegal immigrants have been transported to Carlisle and are about to meet their new employers.

Nothing is as it seems for Evans and his Major Crimes Team as they battle to avoid a bloodbath while also uncovering a far more heinous crime.

The Review 
Matching the Evidence is the follow up novella to Graham Smith's debut novel - Snatched from Home. DI Harry Evans and his Major Crimes Team are in hot water with the top brass over their handling of the case in Snatched from Home, and Millwall are coming to town. 

So it is DI Harry Evans and his Major Crimes Team are given a slap on the wrist and set the task of keeping an eye on the notoriously unsavoury Millwall support - apologies to all the decent Millwall supporters out there, I'm sure you are both very nice people ;) 

With the eyes of the Major Crimes Team on the thugs in blue, DI Harry Evans and his people get whiff of something else afoot. And so Smith sets up the two strands of this excellent novella.

The undoubted star of the novella - as of Snatched from Home - is DI Harry Evans. An uncompromising detective from the Old School, Evans makes The Sweeney look like something off children's telly. 

Harry is due to retire shortly, and there is no way he is going to let a few knuckle draggers from the big city end his career with blood on his own streets. 

Just always staying on the right side of cliche and just about the right side of the law - most of the time - Evans and his team know the ins and outs of their patch like no other team I have ever read.

And then there are the young women, intriguingly slipped into the narrative, getting ready to meet their boss, anxious about their clothes and their make-up, hoping to make a good impression and make a go of it in their newly adopted country. When the reason for their appearance in Carlisle becomes apparent, DI Harry Evans leads his team with his usual reckless ferocity right into the eye of the storm.

Harry may be the central character, but what sets Smith's writing apart is the strength of the characters in the Major Crimes Team. Each is so very well drawn, their motivations clear, their personalities distinct.
  
As I mentioned, Matching the Evidence begins just a few days after the resolution of Snatched from Home. Just a few days. Not six months after. Not a year. A few days. What I love about this, what I find so refreshing, is the reader gets a real sense of continuity from the novel to the novella. With Smith's second DI Harry Evans novel out in just a few weeks, Matching the Evidence makes for an excellent filler for Smith's growing legion of fans - of which I am undoubtedly one.


                                    About Graham Smith

Graham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses, dug drains and slated roofs to make ends meet. Since Christmas 2000 he has been manager of a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland.

An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a regular reviewer and interviewer for the well-respected website Crimesquad.com since 2009

He is the author of four books featuring DI harry Evans and the Cumbrian Major Crimes Team.

Matching the Evidence

Snatched from Home

Lines of Enquiry

I Know Your Secret – Out October 2016