Sunday 11 June 2017

Review: Child's Play by Nancy Swing

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to review Nancy Swing's debut novel and thoroughly enjoyed it, but her second novel, Child's Play, is even better. It's an incredibly powerful story of despair and redemption, and an unlikely friendship that alters the two protagonists' lives. Well worth reading.

Eden Jones and Bethanne Swanson are no-account people, both in their own eyes and in the estimation of the residents of Lewiston, West Virginia, the small town in which they live.
Eden is thirteen and lives with her mother and baby brother on a trailer park. Since her father walked out on them, Eden has tried to help her mother to keep their small family afloat by babysitting her young brother every night during the school holidays so that her mother can do shift work at the mill and afford a baby-sitter and work when Eden is in school. Eden is plump and has little money and is teased by the other children at her school. The bullying would be much worse if it wasn’t for Ray-Jean Shackleford, who had befriended her. Ray-Jean was one of the toughest, most street-wise kids in the town, a girl who seemed afraid of nothing and broke into wealthy people’s houses to snoop and sometimes to steal. Eden is a na├»ve but clever young girl and, despite the sparseness of her opportunities, is interested in learning, usually from the education channels on television. She regards Ray-Jean as an adventurer, a person much braver than herself, and never questions whether what she does is wrong.
Bethanne is fifty, out-of-shape and dogged by her addiction to cigarettes and alcohol. Her life is a mess, mainly because of her habit of choosing predatory bullying men to live with. These men have physically and emotionally abused her and left her destitute. Bethanne is living in the house of her sister, Mary Margaret, an elegant, sophisticated woman who is married to Winston Gravesly, a wealthy, prominent, West Virginia lawyer. Mary Margaret has two grown up children, Lucinda and Clay. Lucinda has always been hostile towards Bethanne but Clay is still her friend. Bethanne is aware that the blackmail she used to force her sister to take her in was wrong but she is too desperate and damaged to truly regret it.
The story opens at the point where Ray-Jean and Mary Margaret have just died. They were together in Mary Margaret’s car, which drove into the lake at the Gravesley’s summer house. Winston Gravesly used his influence to have the deaths ruled as a tragic accident but any explanations as to why Mary Margaret would have been transporting Ray-Jean in her car are unconvincing. Both Eden and Bethanne are convinced that there is something deeply suspicious about the deaths and set out to discover the truth. At first they work separately but soon they become aware of each other’s presence and join forces, cautiously, not trusting one another, until suddenly they discover an affection for each other and a respect that surprises them both. However their investigation comes to the attention of some powerful people who have dark secrets to hide and Eden and Bethanne realise that their own lives are at risk.
Child’s Play is Nancy Swings' second crime novel but the first set in Lewiston, West Virginia. It is a compelling novel of American, small town society and a fascinating study of the damage dark secrets can do to an individual, a family and a community. At the same time, there is a lot of gentle humour in the book, and two unusual but thoroughly engaging protagonists in Eden and Bethanne. This is not only an excellent crime novel but also a story of redemption as Eden discovers her potential and Bethanne rediscovers her self-respect. The book has dark themes sensitively handled but one of its chief delights is the developing relationship between the two unlikely friends. Child’s Play is an excellent read and one which I would recommend.

Published by Park Place Publications
ISBN: 978-1-943887-44-6

Sunday 14 May 2017

Research Pick-and-Mix. Discover what you didn't know that you wanted to know.

Research is often very firmly targeted towards obtaining the information that you know you are going to need. If you’re a crime writer it may be looking up on line the outward signs of a particular sort of violent death or asking questions of your local police. If you write historical novels it can be studying the food or fashions of the time and visiting museums or historical houses to get a glimpse of reconstructions of the real thing. All this research has to be focused around what you need to know or, if you’re like me, there’s a danger of being side-tracked along wonderful side roads and never get the actual writing done.
However, occasionally it’s valuable to allow yourself a day off to do ‘pick-and-mix’ research and go out to meet people who approach your subject from a very different angle. Sometimes it can be a panel event, or an exhibition or lecture put on by a museum or gallery and, something I particularly enjoy, a public information open day run by an educational establishment. The value of this pick-and mix approach is that you sometimes find out things you didn’t know you didn’t know and, even better, you discover things that you didn’t know you wanted to know.
This weekend I gave myself a day off from writing, editing or research specifically focused on things I had to know and went to the University of Portsmouth’s Forensics Open Day. For a crime writer it was like being a kid in a sweet shop where you were allowed to sample all the goodies and friendly shop keepers smiled approvingly and discussed what flavour you liked best.
I found out about a wide range of subjects: memory, eye-witness identification, wildlife crime, the illegal ivory trade and the antiques market, cyber crime on social media, and what a professional burglar looks for when targeting a house and what objects are the ones they go for, crime scene interpretation. Added to which, I talked to a selection of delightful and fascinating people who were doing cutting-edge research and appeared happy to share their knowledge.

All of my books are grounded in the psychology of crime and need a good knowledge of forensics so days like those offered by the University of Portsmouth are invaluable.

I’d recommend attending something that interests you on a serendipity basis. For me it was a day of renewal, in which I rediscovered my delight in finding out about new aspects of psychology and crime. As an extra bonus, I found the theme and title for my next Scene of Crimes novel, it’s not due to be written for two or three years but it’s good to be prepared.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Review: Masking Evil by Carol Anne Davis

I first met Carol Anne Davis many years ago at The Crime & Mystery Conference, St Hilda's, Oxford, and I have always been impressed by her vast knowledge of real-life crime and even more impressed by her powerful crime fiction.

 This non-fiction study of violent criminals high-lights the serious problem that when people have power and position and wear the mask of respectability, they can escape detection for a very long time and commit an unbelievable number of barbarous acts.

This selection of true-crime studies outlines the cases of thirty-seven criminals who committed violent crimes – in most cases murder – and, at first, were shielded from suspicion by their social position and respectable jobs, which often allowed them to offend again. The chapters consist of a study of the perpetrators' childhoods, their lives and the circumstances that moulded their personalities. Many of these personalities were terrifyingly warped and ego-centric.
The perpetrators ranged through several killers with positions in law enforcement and education, there were also health workers, lawyers, a vet and an airline pilot, and a large number of people with positions in religious organisations. Indeed one of the most disturbing aspects of the book as a whole was the number of violent offenders who had religion – often in an extreme form – as part of their upbringing. The chapters often conclude with comments from psychologists and psychiatrists, analysing the nature of the crime and perpetrators, and these are fascinating.
Although the front cover includes the caption 'When good men and women turn criminal,' I did not feel that the majority of the perpetrators were 'good,' they merely had the position and reputation to camouflage their true natures. Because they were respectable people who could hide behind a mask of authority, religion and good deeds, those around them could not believe them capable of serious evil. Added to which, official agencies (such as the Social Services in the case of abusive foster mother Eunice Spry) are very wary of challenging the outwardly respectable and unwilling to offend people whom they regard as 'like themselves.'
Carol Anne Davis is an outstanding authority on true crime, and Masking Evil is a fascinating, although chilling, study of criminals who shelter (and are sheltered by those around them) behind a mask of respectability. A book that is well worth reading for those who are interested in true crime and the psychology behind violent actions, not to mention a good source of plots for crime writers. An authoritative and very interesting book.

Published by Summersdale Publishers
ISBN: 978-1-84953-883-1

Thursday 27 April 2017

Review: Retalio by Alison Morton

I have had the good fortune to review all three of Alison Morton's books featuring Aurelia Mitela and Retalio is a magnificent conclusion to a superb trilogy.

Retalio is the latest in Alison Morton’s alternative history novels, based on the premise that the Roman Empire never totally disappeared but continued as a small but prosperous and influential country called Roma Nova. The country is ruled by twelve houses, all of which are led by women, and adheres to the traditions of a proud and stoical past.
Retalio is set in the 1980s. It is the sixth in the series about Roma Nova and the third in the trilogy that features Aurelia Mitela, head of one of the most powerful houses in Roma Nova. For many years Aurelia has countered the evil deeds of Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan nobleman, who is unscrupulous in his pursuit of power and determined to revenge himself on Aurelia for thwarting his criminal enterprises. A weak Empress has allowed Caius to overthrow the legitimate government, and he has taken power, murdering or sending to labour camps all who stood in his way or offended him and relegating women to staying at home or working in menial jobs.
At the start of this book, Aurelia has managed to escape from Caius and was smuggled out of Roma Nova but she was badly wounded and takes some time to recover. Even living quietly in Vienna with her partner, Miklos, her life is in danger from Caius’ hired assassins. A small number of Roma Novan refugees are scraping a living in Vienna but Caius’ evil manipulations have polluted Aurelia’s reputation and they shun her. Aurelia knows that she must regain their trust and her old position as a leader of the Roma Novan community if she is to have any chance of defeating Caius, bringing the new, young Empress to power and restoring order and prosperity to the country she loves.
Retalio is a stunning book, fast moving and yet detailed. The alternative history scenario that Alison Morton creates is totally convincing and terrifyingly plausible in the light of political events in the past and present. Her knowledge of politics and military strategy is awe-inspiring and yet is displayed with a light touch. Aurelia is a superb heroine. A soldier and a diplomat, she is powerful and yet compassionate, strong and yet vulnerable. She loves her family and Miklos and is loved in return, but true to her Roman upbringing, her deepest loyalty is to her country and she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness for its well-being.
Retalio is a page-turner and I recommend it wholeheartedly. However, if possible, I would also recommend the whole experience by reading the first two books in the trilogy, Aurelia and Insurrectio first.


Sunday 23 April 2017

Review: Elementary Murder by A.J. Wright

Elementary Murder (A Lancashire Detective Mystery) by [Wright, AJ]

I enjoy historical fiction and have a special interest in crime novels set in Victorian times. This book is excellent. It feels authentic and it's centred around ordinary, working class people. Not an easy read but a compelling one.

Elementary Murder is set in 1894 and centres around George Street Elementary School, a school in one of the poorer, manufacturing districts of Wigan. Many of the pupils and their parents resent that the children are obliged to stay in school until they are twelve, rather than going out to work to augment the family income. The headmaster, Richard Weston, is a harsh disciplinarian and when Dorothea Gadsworth, a young woman who is being interviewed for a teaching post, faints in the staffroom, he informs her that she is unfit for the position and is rejected. Nothing more is heard of Dorothea over the weekend but, on the Monday following this unsuccessful interview, Dorothea is found dead in a classroom of the school. She has drunk poison and beside her lies a note with the single word, ‘Failed.’ At first it seems that the officials in charge will accept that Dorothea committed suicide, but Detective Sergeant Michael Brennan is not convinced that Dorothea died by her own hand, and, as he pursues his investigation, another death connected with the school confirms this.
As Brennan struggles to unravel the circumstances surrounding Dorothea’s strange and cruel death it becomes clear that her murder has its roots in a tragic accident fifteen years earlier when Dorothea was a child. As more assaults and attempted murders occur, it is discovered that a pupil at the school has gone missing and has not been seen since the Friday of Dorothea’s death. Brennan is under increasing pressure to discover the truth that links the past and the present before the killer strikes again.
Elementary Murder is a fascinating book, showing the harsh realities of life in an industrial town during the late Victorian period, and the impoverished, hand-to-mouth lives of the people who live and work there. It describes a culture in which violence is a commonplace occurrence and most working people place no value on education and have no faith in the authorities. Michael Brennan is a thoroughly likeable protagonist, honest, hard-working and devoted to his wife and young son. Throughout the book the characterisation is excellent, the plot is clever and intricately interwoven and the period detail is superb.
I would describe Elementary Murder as a page-turner and thoroughly recommend it.

Published by Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0-7490-1949-5

Friday 14 April 2017

Review: Insurrectio by Alison Morton

This is my review of the second book in Alison Morton's stunning trilogy.
Product Details

The premise behind these books is one of alternative history where the Roman Empire survived as an influential colony. Unlike the surrounding countries, Roma Nova has never fallen under patriarchal rule and is governed by female heads of the foremost houses who advise the over-all ruler, the Imperatrix. The first book featuring Aurelia Mitela is set in the 1960s. Aurelia is a young woman who loves her career as a Praetorian officer but she has to leave the army when her mother, the Head of the Mitela family, falls ill and dies. However Aurelia is called upon to serve her country by investigating the silver smuggling ring that is severely damaging Roma Nova's finances and political standing. At great danger to herself and her young daughter, Aurelia succeeds in defeating the man behind the smuggling. Caius Tellus is a member of another of Roma Nova's ruling families, a charming but vicious psychopath, whom Aurelia has hated and feared since childhood.
Insurrectio opens thirteen years after the conclusion of the story told in the first book. Aurelia is now Assistant Foreign Minister, continually striving to keep her promise to the last Imperatrix and guide and protect her daughter, the weak and foolish Imperatrix Severina, a woman swayed by flattery and persuasion, who resents the powers that her late mother had begged Aurelia to accept and will always act upon the last advice given to her rather than wise and proven counsel. Aurelia's worst fears become reality when Caius Tellus is released from prison, having served his sentence. Soon he manipulates and charms his way into a position of power and, with the terrible speed and unrelenting force of a land-slide, order breaks down in Roma Nova. In one of the first serious mob rampages Aurelia's daughter, Marina, is viciously attacked and Aurelia knows she has been targeted by Caius. Soon the traditional but stable and fair government of Roma Nova is under attack from all sides, and Aurelia is in danger of losing all she cares about: her daughter, her lover, her reputation and her life, and, above all, she fears the destruction of the country that she loves and has pledged herself to defend.
Insurrectio is an exceptionally powerful book. Aurelia is a strong, honourable and engaging character and the desperation of her struggle to save her family and her country is intensely moving. The book is also a fascinating and chilling study of the balance of political power and how a weak ruler and a ruthless would-be dictator, with the backing of mob-rule, can destroy a civilised country.
I would advise readers to read Aurelia first but to then go straight on to Insurrectio. It is a page-turner and I recommend it.

Published by Silverwood Books
ISBN: 978-1781325094

Saturday 8 April 2017

Death Unscripted by M.K. Graff - Review

Product Details

One of the great things about being a reviewer is the brilliant books you get to read. Another even better thing is the lovely people you get to meet, either on-line or in person. I've enjoyed chatting to Marni Graff for some time and I enjoy all of her books. Death Unscripted is really special, set in a New York film studio, it is warm, funny and has a wonderful protagonist. P.D. James encouraged Marni to write this book: just another thing we have to thank that wonderful lady for.

Trudy Genova thinks that she has the best job possible: a qualified nurse, she is the medical consultant at a movie studio. Instead of having to deal with human suffering and bodily fluids, she gets to teach actors how to mimic credible heart-attacks and supervise the medical details in scripts. The only down-sides of her job are occasionally having to chaperone precocious child actors and, far worse, having to fend off the sleazy advances of Griff Kennedy, the male star of the soap Thornfield Place. It is unfortunate that soon after Trudy fends off Griff’s groping with conspicuous success in the form of a well-aimed slice of coconut pie, the amorous actor should die, on-set, in suspicious circumstances. It is even worse that his last conscious action should be to point at Trudy and utter an accusatory, “You – YOU!”
Rumours and gossip are soon flying round the movie studio and Trudy is certain that people are eyeing her with suspicion. A visit from Detectives Ned O’Malley and Tony Borelli makes her feel both angry and threatened and she is determined to get to the truth. Trudy enlists the help of her best friend, Meg Pitman, who also works at the studio, and the pair of them delve amongst the complicated tangle of relationships amongst the actors and crew in an attempt to find out who was responsible for Griff’s death. Trudy’s sleuthing attempts soon cause her to fall foul of Ned O’Malley, and she has the hideous experience of being taken in for questioning. However she does her best to be useful to O’Malley and, after a while, he feels torn between regarding Trudy as a suspect and fearing for her safety if her attempts to unmask the killer make the murderer regard her as a threat.
Another actor dies a violent death. As O’Malley feared, the murderer has not finished, and it soon becomes clear that Trudy’s life is in imminent danger.
This is the first book in the Trudy Genova series and I hope that the following books will follow very soon. Trudy is a delightful protagonist, funny, warm, good-hearted and efficient but also sensitive, with things in her background that make her vulnerable. The plot is well thought out and convincing, and all the characters are well-drawn – real people not just caricatures – and I lost my heart to Trudy’s cat, Wilkie. The movie studio setting is fascinating and clearly authentic and I was not surprised to discover that the author had worked in a similar job. I particularly liked the technique Trudy invented to tell an actor playing a corpse when he needed to hold his breath.
I read this book in two days. It is a page-turner and great fun and I recommend it.

Published by Bridle Path Press
ISBN: 978-0990828723
ASIN: B0176Y7EA6