Saturday, July 24, 2021

Review: The Perfect Family by Robyn Harding

Synopsis: The bestselling author of the The Swap explores what happens when a seemingly perfect family is pushed to the edge... and beyond in this “propulsive, constantly surprising” (Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, author of The Girls Are All So Nice Here) thriller.

Thomas and Viv Adler are the envy of their neighbors: attractive, successful, with well-mannered children and a beautifully restored home.

Until one morning, when they wake up to find their porch has been pelted with eggs. It’s a prank, Thomas insists; the work of a few out-of-control kids. But when a smoke bomb is tossed on their front lawn, and their car’s tires are punctured, the family begins to worry. Surveillance cameras show nothing but grainy images of shadowy figures in hoodies. And the police dismiss the attacks, insisting they’re just the work of bored teenagers. Unable to identify the perpetrators, the Adlers are helpless as the assaults escalate into violence, and worse. And each new violation brings with it a growing fear. Because everyone in the Adler family is keeping a secret—not just from the outside world, but from each other. And secrets can be very dangerous….

This twisty, addictively page-turning suspense novel about a perfect family’s perfect fa├žade will keep you turning pages until its explosive ending.

A fantastic page turning; gut wrenching; edge of your seat psychological thriller. Going to be up there on my list of must reads for 2021! I really can't add much more except - read this!


Review: Murder at Elmstow Minster by Lindsay Jacob

Synopsis: It is the 830s; a time of warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, declining monastic standards and outbursts of fear of divine retribution. 

Elmstow Minster – a community of nuns in the Kingdom of the East Angles – has been recently established to atone for the execution of a young prince. The minster is torn between two camps – pious nuns and those who have no intention of giving up their worldly ways. These ungodly women are supported by powerful, degenerate donors, who treat Elmstow as an aristocratic whoring nest. The abbess of Elmstow has been humiliated by the influence wielded over her minster by these rich patrons and plots revenge. Two naked bodies are discovered, hanged together.

A young, introspective priest, Father Eadred, is sent to Elmstow to spy on the declining standards and against his wishes becomes entangled in the task of uncovering the guilty. He challenges the traditional approach of using an ordeal of hot iron to identify the culprits. Instead, he has the novel idea of exploring the evidence. He faces significant opposition, including an attempt on his life. Eadred is befriended by a hermit monk who becomes the only person with whom he can talk about his detection.

Further murders will take place. As Eadred moves closer to the truth the situation is thrown into further disarray when the minster is attacked by the neighbouring kingdom. Can they be saved and the final culprit revealed?

Rather good start from what promises to be the first among many, one hopes.

I have read a great deal of historical fiction, with characters from the fictional to the historical, putting on their deerstalkers and turning detective. Jacob's Father Eadred is one of many religieuse sleuths - Ellis Peters' "Brother Cadfael" series will be the foremost on many readers' minds - but he is joining the ranks of Rabbi David Small, Father Brown, Sister Fidelma, Hildegard and over 300 clerical detectives.

A number of murders and just as many motives and suspects - but not at all wrapped in a few pages - the denoument is drawn out to an interesting conclusion.  I am looking forward to reading more from this author.

those who like their crime fiction to be bubblegum wholesome would do well to avoid

further reading:

Review: The Milan Contract by Stephen Franks

Synopsis: ‘Except for the ugly brown bullet hole, the corpse could have been the image of the man in the mirror’.

Lukas Stolz, an ex-East German maths guru is shot dead outside the Hotel Napoli in Milan. But Lieutenant Raphael Conza soon wonders whether the bullet that killed Stolz was meant for someone else.

Conza’s investigations uncover a vital witness who may know the moped rider spotted leaving the murder scene. Another witness goes missing and someone is leaking details about the case.

The gang behind the murder will stop at nothing to cover their tracks and Lieutenant Conza finds himself fighting not only the assassins, but also powerful allies determined to protect them. He soon realises he’s out of his depth in pursuit of brutal killers in both Italy and the UK and has to reconsider his options after discovering a plot that could have international repercussions.

Here you have all the ingredients of a great crime thriller: espionage, sabotage, murder, revenge, hatred, blackmail, intimidation; plausible protagonists; powerful antagonists; shady killers; long held secrets dating back decades. And then there is Milan - a city that inspires and entices with its eclectic peoples and culture, a fast-paced metropolis that ignites the senses and yet harbours a darker underbelly that few are exposed to.

And just when you thought you knew where you were being led, you take a misstep and find yourself with more questions than answers.

A fantastic first novel - and cannot wait for more!

further reading:

Review: The Knight's Tale by MJ Trow

Synopsis: Introducing 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a memorable new amateur sleuth in the first of an ingeniously-conceived medieval mystery series.

April, 1380. About to set off on his annual pilgrimage, Comptroller of the King’s Woollens and court poet Geoffrey Chaucer is forced to abandon his plans following an appeal for help from an old friend. The Duke of Clarence, Chaucer’s former guardian, has been found dead in his bed at his Suffolk castle, his bedroom door locked and bolted from the inside. The man who found him, Sir Richard Glanville, suspects foul play and has asked Chaucer to investigate.

On arrival at Clare Castle, Chaucer finds his childhood home rife with bitter rivalries, ill-advised love affairs and dangerous secrets. As he questions the castle’s inhabitants, it becomes clear that more than one member of the Duke’s household had reason to wish him ill. But who among them is a cold-hearted killer? It’s up to Chaucer, with his sharp wits and eye for detail, to root out the evil within.

Personally, I love the way Trow takes a real historical character then posits them knee deep into the role of detective (check out his Kit Marlowe series).

I have added the tag of "alternate history" as Trow does play merry havoc with the timeline slightly but if you are not familiar with the time period, then you would be none-the-wiser. However, Trow is one of those authors who can pull it off rather convincingly and weave a wonderful mystery at the same time.

Geoffrey Chaucer - poet, soldier, civil servant, diplomat, courtier - is called upon by old soldier chum Richard Glanville to investigate a death of the one time patron - Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Throw in some witty, satirical, irreverent and humourous dialogue; murders (of course); some larger than life historical characters; and the aging Chaucer, and you have the start of what promises to be the first of another great mystery series.

This is a fun read - which I undertook in one sitting - testament to Trow's storytelling abilities.

Review: Nottingham by David Hazan

Synopsis: In this twisted medieval noir, the Sheriff of Nottingham hunts a serial killer with a penchant for tax collectors. The Sheriff's investigation makes him the target of England's most nefarious power-brokers. That's to say nothing of the Merry Men, terrorists lurking amongst the trees of Sherwood, led by an enigma known only as "Hood."

I accidentally chose this one not realising it was a graphic novel. That being said - I rather enjoyed this grim, noirish homage to the Robin Hood mythos.

If you like your villains dark and broody, your heroes questionable and a bit off-kilter, a bit of blood and gore (understatement), fantastic artwork by Volk and Romano, then this will be right up your alley. A great start to a promising series.

Review: The Invention of Sicily by Jamie Mackay

Synopsis: A fascinating cultural history of this most magical of islands.Sicily has always acted as a gateway between Europe and the rest of the world. Fought over by Phoenicians and Greeks, Romans, Goths and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, Germans, Spanish and French for thousands of year, Sicily became a unique melting pot where diverse traditions merged, producing a unique heritage and singular culture.

In this fascinating account of the island from the earliest times to the present day, author and journalist Jamie Mackay leads us through this most elusive of places. From its pivotal position in the development of Greek and Roman mythology, and the beautiful remnants of both the Arab and Norman invasions, through to the rise of the bandits and the Cosa Nostra, The Invention of Sicily charts the captivating culture and history of Sicily.

Mackay weaves together the political and social development of the island with its fascinating cultural heritage, discussing how great works including Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard and its film adaptation by Visconti, and the novels of Leonardo Sciascia, among many others, have both been shaped by Sicily’s past, and continue to shape it in the present.

To be totally honest, I only read this one for selected chapters that covered the period from 826AD to 1693AD to enhance my already sound knowledge of this period in Sicily's history (and to pick up any nuggets I may have missed elsewhere).

Overall, it was an easy to read primer that flowed well; it was well researched and informative. It will provide an ample launching pad for someone who is interested in Sicily, its history and its diverse cultures and population.

Review: The Knights Templar by Michael Kerrigan

Synopsis: The Templars, the Knights Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights – the chivalric orders founded during the Crusades evoke romantic images of warrior monks who were fierce but spiritual, chaste and pious yet battle-ready. But what were they really like? How did their organisations form, rise and decline? And how much of what we think about them is myth?

The Knights Templar tells the stories of the major and minor military orders from the 11th century to – in the case of the surviving orders – the present day. Organised chronologically, the book follows the fates of orders, from the foundation of the Knights of St Peter in 1053 to the major crusading era in the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th centuries, from the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic to the Reconquista in Iberia and on to the Hospitallers’ later ventures in the Mediterranean and even in the Caribbean.

Full of surprising details, the book not only explores how the military and religious aspects of the orders were reconciled, but also looks more broadly at the orders’ work, from the Templars’ role in the development of modern banking to hospital, castle and cathedral building, from the Teutonic Knights’ treatment of non-believers to the Hospitallers’ battles against Barbary pirates. Illustrated with 180 colour and black-&-white photographs, artworks and maps, The Knights Templar is a fascinating history of about some of Europe’s most often misunderstood organisations.

Definitely aimed at the "commercial" market and the younger reader, and certainly not the advanced reader looking for a more scholarly tome.

Introduction is on the early knights, courtly love, Arthurian mythos, with a side tour to the world of the Benedictine monks. The focus is not just the Templars, but also the Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and other European knightly orders in both the Holy Land and Europe as centered mainly around the Mediterranean. Kerrigan also covers off the basics, and the usual myths and allegations.

There are plenty of maps, images, side text boxes and catchy headings which reminded me of the presentation style of the current popular "History" magazines (which I do buy myself - for the articles of course!).

Well below my reading level - and quite frankly, nothing new has been presented here.

Review: Taking The Fight South - Howard Ball

Synopsis: Taking the Fight South provides a timely and telling reminder of the vigilance democracy requires if racial justice is to be fully realized.

Distinguished historian and civil rights activist Howard Ball has witten dozens of books during his career, including the landmark biography of Thurgood Marshall, A Defiant Life, and the critically acclaimed Murder in Mississippi, chronicling the Mississippi Burning killings. In Taking the Fight South, arguably his most personal book, Ball focuses on six years, from 1976 to 1982, when, against the advice of friends and colleagues in New York, he and his Jewish family moved from the Bronx to Starkville, Mississippi, where he received a tenured position in the political science department at Mississippi State University. For Ball, his wife Carol, and their three young daughters, the move represented a leap of faith, ultimately illustrating their deep commitment toward racial justice.

Ball, with breathtaking historical authority, narrates the experience of his family as Jewish outsiders in Mississippi, an unfamiliar and dangerous landscape contending with the aftermath of the civil rights struggle. Signs and natives greeted them with a humiliating and frightening message: "No Jews, Negroes, etc., or dogs welcome." From refereeing football games, coaching soccer, and helping young black girls integrate the segregated Girl Scout troops in Starkville, to life-threatening calls from the KKK in the middle of the night, from his work for the ACLU to his arguments in the press and before a congressional committee for the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Ball takes the reader to a precarious time and place in the history of the South. He was briefly an observer but quickly became an activist, confronting white racists stubbornly holding on to a Jim Crow white supremacist past and fighting to create a more diverse, equitable, and just society.

Ball's story is one of an imitable advocate who didn't just observe as a passive spectator but interrupted injustice. Taking the Fight South will join the list of required books to read about the Black Lives Matter movement and the history of racism in the United States. The book will also appeal to readers interested in Judaism because of its depiction of anti-Semitism directed toward Starkville's Jewish community, struggling to survive in the heart of the deep and very fundamentalist Protestant South

This was an interesting read. Here was a man who not only "talked the talk" but "walked the walk" - a man of conviction, who refused to to be bullied. He was / is, what we would colloquially call a "shit stirrer".

This memoir was written many years after the event - he spent a mere six years in the South as a fish out of water - though I feel this is highly relevant reading in today's politically and racially charged arena.

It is only later does the author - a much published and respected political science commentator - realise the impact of his earlier decisions on his own family. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Review: The Devil's Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

A deadly prosecutor
They call him the King of Death Row. Randal Korn has sent more men to their deaths than any district attorney in the history of the United States.

A twisted ritualistic killing
When a young woman, Skylar Edwards, is found murdered in Buckstown, Alabama, a corrupt sheriff arrests the last person to see her alive, Andy Dubois. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone that Andy is innocent.

A small town boiling with rage
Everyone in Buckstown believes Andy is guilty. He has no hope of a fair trial. And the local defense attorney assigned to represent him has disappeared.

A former con-artist
Hot shot New York lawyer Eddie Flynn travels south to fight fire with fire. He plans to destroy the prosecutors case, find the real killer and save Andy from the electric chair.

But the murders are just beginning.  Is Eddie Flynn next?

" ... justice was simply a cloak he wore to disguise his true nature ..."

Can an outsider come into a small insular town and save a young man's life? If any man can, its Eddie Flynn. Without giving too much away, Eddie is call in to save a young man from death row - the odds are against the prisoner and Eddie as not everyone is happy to see justice served - at least not well.

Cavanagh again allows his readers to enter the inner sanctum of Eddie and his team, slowly building up the tension, drawing the reader ever deeper into an Alabama with its present deeply rooted in its past. Then the sucker punch sends you reeling back, before, like any good prize fighter, Cavanagh lifts and delivers the coup de grace with a series of body shots than send his villain to the mat.

If you have not picked up this series, it is high time you did. Each and every book is a gem; Cavanagh has a way with words that make the reader feel that they are actually part of the story and not just a interested onlooker.

After five books down, I was lucky enough to be one of a few to read this - book six (or six point five) - early via the publisher and the author; and will be adding this to my own collection without any hesitation.