Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

porter spy Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

The Intruders were in my TBR!…

The Intruders by Michael Marshall

intruders

British author Marshall began writing stylish SF novels as Michael Marshall Smith – winning the Philip K Dick Award for his debut Only Forward, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for years! After a few more, he dropped the ‘Smith’ and moved into the world of creepy thrillers winning plaudits for The Straw Men and its follow-ups.

I was spurred on to read this one from my shelves by its current TV adaptation. Having seen the first two creepy parts last week, I decided to find out what goes on to happen on the page first rather than the screen. These episodes actually mirrored the novel very closely and now I know…

The prologue starts with the doorbell ringing at the Anderson home, Gina is at home with her son:

She flipped the porch light on. It showed a man in his mid-fifties, with short, dark hair, sallow skin in flat planes around his face. His eyes seemed dark too, almost black. They gave no impression of depth, as if they had been painted on his head from the outside.
‘I’m looking for William Anderson,’ he said.
‘He’s not here right now. Who are you?’
‘Agent Shepherd,’ the man said, and then paused, for a deep cough. ‘Mind if I come inside?’
Gina did mind, but he just stepped up onto the porch and walked right past her and into the house.

No prizes for working out that Gina and her son will soon be dead.

Jack Whalen was a cop in LA. Was – he left in undisclosed circumstances, moving with his wife to a little town in Washington state inland from Seattle. Jack is now an author, first book published – second one not yet in his head. Amy works for an advertising company in Seattle and occasionally has to stop over in the city. The weirdness starts when Amy is away on a trip and Jack receives a call from a taxi driver on Amy’s phone. She’d left it in the cab. Jack tells the driver to take it to her hotel where he’ll get paid.

Jack rings the hotel to find out that she’s not there, no reservation. He arranges to collect the phone and goes into Seattle. Thinking to surprise her at work, he finds she’s not there either.  Uh-oh – is she with someone else?

Cut to the other main strand of the story. Ten year old Madison is sitting on the shore at her family’s beach house, when a man in black arrives. ‘Can you keep a secret?’ he asks.  Soon, she goes missing …

Later on, getting slowly drunk at a bar, Jack is examining Amy’s phone. There are loads of weird texts on it. He’s suspicious – meeting up with the taxi driver, he asks him to take him where he dropped off Amy – but they end up in a fight with some heavies who don’t want them there.

When he gets back home, Amy’s there. She seems to have an explanation that fits for where she’s been. Life carries on.  Except that Amy is different. She suddenly likes jazz where she hated it before; she was always a coffee drinker, and now prefers tea.

Then Gary Fisher comes back into Jack’s life. They were at school together, Gary is now a lawyer, and after seeing Jack’s book, he gets in contact with Jack to ask for his help.

By this stage I had many questions: Has Amy been brainwashed? What came over Madison to make her ‘run away’? What is her connection to Agent Shepherd? Who is Bill Anderson? Is any of this linked? Is Jack just paranoid and jealous? What is Jack’s back story?  At least on that front he starts to explain(!):

I was on the job for ten years. I turned up and did what I was paid to do, entering people’s lives only when they’d begun to go wrong. after the God of Bad Things had decided to pay a call. In the end my own life started to skew, as policemen’s lives do. The problem with being a cop is you wander into the field of play of the God of Bad Things so often that you wind up permanently on his radar – as a meddler, a spoiler, someone who has tried to mitigate his attempts to stir disappointment and pain into the lives of humankind. The God of Bad Things is a shitty little god, but He has a great memory and a long attention span. Once you’ve caught his eye you’re there for good. He becomes you own personal imp, perching on your shoulder and shitting down your back.

It carries on getting creepier and creepier. Naturally, the book’s title and its tagline ‘they’re already inside’ imply some horror scenario to come and I can assure you that there is plenty. Who are they? Even after the big reveal towards the end of the book, there is a neat little sting in the tail. I daren’t say more in case any of you are watching the TV series.

I found Jack a difficult character to sympathise with at all. At the start, he has compartmentalised his life, shutting off the bit that was a policeman – but once a cop, always a cop – and he was one with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, remaining in uniform. It seemed unlikely that a high flyer like Amy would fall for a beat cop – meanwhile, Amy is notable by her absence for most of the novel.

I also felt that Madison was largely extraneous to the main plot – she only has a relevance to the man in black, Shepherd. Whether he’s actually an agent, a hit-man or plain psychopath, Shepherd is by far the most interesting character!

The TV series was made by BBC America, and has two Brits starring – John Simm as Jack, and James Frain as Shepherd; Amy is played by Mira Sorvino. It has a noirish feel, with lots of night-time shots and certainly feeds on paranoia and brings the conspiracy theories to the front – although we have no idea what they are! It’s settling in to be good and dark and confusing, but now 3 episodes in (Mondays 9pm, BBC2) so you’ll need to catch up via iPlayer.

This novel was an good introduction to Marshall’s chiller output. Reading the reviews, there seems to be a consensus that it’s not his best, but I although I found the characters mostly aloof and hard to engage with, the mystery did keep me reading, so it was quite compulsive in that respect – like Twin Peaks without the funny bits. I shall look forward to reading The Straw Men which is also on my shelves. (7/10)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Intruders by Michael Marshall, 2007. Harper paperback 496 pages.
The Straw Men (2002)
Only Forward as Michael Marshall Smith (1994)

The world of espionage is a different place now…

The Director by David Ignatius

Director

It’s a while since I’ve read a spy novel set inside the various American intelligence agencies, and they make the British MI5 and MI6 seem totally straight-forward in their organisation of roles and responsibilities in comparison.

This novel is set mainly in the CIA, an independent agency, which itself has many different branches. The Information Operations Center (IOC) in the Intelligence branch is the main one featuring in this novel. The IOC deals with cyber-intelligence and threats to US computer systems – but it also supports DNI activities.  The DNI is the Director of National Intelligence, reporting to the President.  The Director of the CIA reports to him.  The DNI also has his own independent agency to assist him – the ODNI (Office of the DNI).  To find out more about how all the elements of the US intelligence community fit together I advise a trip to Wikipedia here!

To be honest, Ignatius, a long-time journalist and novelist in this arena in the USA does gradually explain things as we go, and you don’t really need any fore-knowledge. You realise very soon that all the different agencies co-operate – or not, have covert – or not activities from each other, and that there are big power games to be played – or not between them.

The Director of the title is the new director of the CIA. A controversial appointment, for Graham Weber is a billionaire businessman, not a career politician or military man. The CIA has had a difficult time post-Wikileaks and after the Snowden scandal, it’s previous director left under a cloud. Weber has been appointed as an agent of change, to cleanse the agency.

He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last long.

Weber is not to get a chance to settle in gently though. Within days a warning note has appeared inside his desk, and then a young Swiss computer hacker walks into the consulate in Hamburg wanting to talk to Weber, saying that there is a mole in the CIA and that their systems are compromised, he has proof. Rudolf Biel refuses the safe house offered, promising to return in three days. (Of course he never does, and his body will be found later.)

Weber immediately appoints James Morris, head of the IOC to fly to Germany and take charge of the investigation. Weber had met Morris once before, when Weber had addressed a hacker’s convention in Las Vegas about business and internet security.

‘I take it you’ve been here before,’ Weber said, joining the stream of the crowd entering the convention space.
‘I’ve been coming to DEF CON for ten years,’ said Morris, leaning toward Weber and speaking quietly. ‘It’s my favorite honeypot.’
‘You recruit here?’ asked Weber.
‘I’ve hired some of my best people off the floor.’ He pointed to an overweight, pimple-faced young man in baggy cargo shorts and sandals, and a Goth girl shrouded in black who was sucking on a lollypop. ‘These people may not look like much, but when they write code, it’s poetry.’

The IOC, now run by Morris, is not your typical government agency, and its employees are not your typical civil servants either. Hacking the hackers is their prime business, and with Morris involved with the DNI too, it’s difficult for Weber to get to grips with this dual role. There is a rivalry between the ODNI and the CIA, and Weber has yet to build a working relationship with Cyril Hoffman the DNI.

Weber is thrust into a race against time. There is a major hack in the offing – it may involve a mole in the CIA which is certainly a leaky sieve. Can the different agencies actually work together to prevent upsetting the new world order? Can they catch the mole? How long will Weber last in his new job?

I found it fascinating to find out about the amoral world of computer hacking, in which they do it primarily because they can. When other people get leverage on the hackers it turns even more sinister. Being a fan of Homeland (well, the first series in particular), and spy thrillers in general, The Director was an interesting read. I have no idea whether the technical details are accurate, but the plot was involving enough to keep me reading, despite the large amount of explanations needed. The characterisation was, I have to admit, totally stereotyped, although I did warm to Weber and found the oily DNI Hoffman great value.

Post Snowden and Wikileaks, Ignatius has written a timely thriller about the state of espionage today, that it is becoming more about cyber-attack and security than traditional trade-craft. The Director was enjoyable but not exceptional. (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Director by David Ignatius, pub Jun 2014 by Quercus, hardback 384 pages.
Homeland – Season 1-3 [DVD]starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin.

 

Taking the plunge into the waters of popular thriller-dom…

The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani

nemesis

Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little!  My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’

220px-TeslaOscillatorThat word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.

Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.

Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage – Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.

Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action.  Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …

For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. […] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. […] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.

It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.

Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…

‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…

Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though).  So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town.  Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.

At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun.  Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.

These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing.  Would I read another?  Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would.  But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

troublesthrillesblogphoto

I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

Harry's Game Derek Thompson

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

L_HarrysGame_ep2

The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game onTop of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour (1975), Hodder paperback.
Harry’s Game The Complete Series [1983] [DVD]

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Being John Malkovich meets The Matrix

Stray by Monica Hesse

StrayLona Sixteen Always doesn’t have her own life. She spends twenty-three hours a day living the life of someone else.

That someone is Julian, a psychologically suitable boy that grew up fifty years ago having all his memories and experiences recorded for Lona and the others on the ‘Path’ to relive for themselves. They’re all on different days of Julian’s life corresponding to their own ages.

They have just one hour per day out of their chairs, primarily for exercise, but also they share Julian’s life with each other – the good days and the bad days.

She didn’t technically remember – none of them did – but she had learned about Before, in one of the presentations that sometimes happened during Calisthenics. Path History. Emotional Well-Being Proper Calisthenics. In this particular presentation they learned about Before Path.. Before Path, Lona would have been beaten or neglected by parents who had been declared unfit. If she were lucky she might have been put in something called ‘foster care’, but even that was dangerous. The presenter showed pictures of a shrunken boy locked in a dog cage, staring through the bars with huge eyes. “That’s how the authorities found him,” the presenter said. “That’s where his foster parents kept him. He didn’t know how to read. He spent every day in his own filth. This is what it used to be like, for everyone like you. You have all been given a very special gift.”

That gift was the Path, the man said. That gift was the fact that when these potentially unfit people disobeyed orders not to have children, the children were rescued and put into a life they never would have been able to have. A good education. Proper nutrition. When the Julian Act was passed in Congress, the CT said, people wept with joy.  (page 17)

One day Lona’s Julian-feed is interrupted by a face she knows – a boy, Fenn who is two years older. They had become friends during their hours out of their chairs, and the last time she’d seen him, he’d ‘touched’ her on the arm – something unheard of. Fenn’s apparition completely disrupts her mental patterns and the bosses decide to take her for remersion, to wipe her memory of it. However before she gets to the centre, Lona is rescued by the band of rebels who have left the Path including Fenn, and finds herself in the real world for the first time since she was a baby. She has a lot to learn very quickly, as the authorities are searching for them. The next few weeks will be very hard, and there will be surprise after surprise as she finds out what happens when teenagers leave the Path for the next steps at seventeen, and who the rebels are…

I really enjoyed reading this book. Not having read the blurb before receiving it, which compares it to Being John Malkovich, I was thinking of The Truman Show, but Julian certainly knew his life is being captured for posterity, if not exactly what for. Then when I started reading, there is definitely an influence of The Matrix there.

A sequel, Burn, will follow in which Lona will explore what happens when the ex-Pathers near the age of eighteen – a critical moment for them. I will be looking out for it as I really enjoyed Stray.  The author has created some great characters in Lona, Fenn -and Julian, and I’m keen to know what comes next.

As for the Path – it is a classic well-meaning experiment that is bound to fail in the end; started with good intentions, but with the consequences poorly thought out, meaning that the Path has to be protected, and the public mustn’t know what’s happening either and the management thus become the enemy.  

I found it an intelligent futuristic thriller, and I’m glad that, as the vogue for paranormal romance is beginning to wane, books such as this are appearing. Although the lead character is female, with its technological base, I hope it will appeal to male readers too. (9/10)

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Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Stray by Monica Hesse. Published Jun 2013 by Hot Key Books, paperback, 342 pages. 12+

From drifter to hitman …

King of the Ants by Charlie Higson

Higson King of the Ants

Comedian and author Charlie Higson has lately been very successful in scaring the pants off older children with his rather wonderful zombie novels, and giving a sense of thrilling adventure in his Young Bond series. You may not be aware that before all that, he wrote four gritty adult thrillers of which King of the Ants, published in 1992 was the first.

It starts off by being a story about men and their work. Sean Crawley is a bit of a drifter, going from job to job as a labourer or decorator, and then spending all of his wages in the pub. He was recently dumped by his girlfriend too, so is feeling still feeling sorry for himself.

One day he meets ‘Duke’ Wayne, self-styled cowboy builder on a job, and chatting at the pub Sean says how he’d love to be a private detective. Duke knows a man who might need a bit of help in that way- so a change in career direction occurs.  Sean meets Derek Mathews, an even bigger cowboy builder, who hires Sean to stalk a chap who works for the council who is knows that something is going on with a whole lot of building contracts.

Sean may be a drifter but he’s a little bit of a perfectionist, and he takes this new comparatively well-paid employment very seriously.  Despite not driving a car, he manages to follow Eric Gatley, and overhears a conversation between Gatley and a journalist.  He reports back via Duke, and this is when this tale of small-time hoodlums in the building trade starts to get nasty.

Sean, buoyed by his success, and full of the false confidence that a skinful of booze gives, agrees to take it to the next stage. Given only a small down-payment he murders Gatley and takes the incriminating file, confident that he won’t get caught.  However the balance of his fee doesn’t get paid, and naturally, the police turn their attention towards Mathews, and Sean has to make himself scarce.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Sean and Mathews and his henchmen. The violence is downright nasty – sickening in places, as Sean metamorphoses from an aimless drifter into a cold-blooded killer.

Higson’s style starts off like a cross between Magnus Mills and Christopher Brookmyre – full of blokey banter about men and their jobs. There are a few touches of humour but not as much as in either Mills or Brookmyre. It seems to be more about Sean’s descent into evil, the turning of an ordinary working class bloke who gets into the wrong company, into a complete amoral anti-hero. Worse still, I felt compelled to carry on reading to see what would happen next to Sean – who may have been named after 007 himself, Sean Connery, but proves to have few ethics, (‘It’s a county near Thuthex, ithn’t it?‘).  I did also feel a little cheated by the final ending – but I won’t spoil that here.

Higson writes well, but this is very dark, very gritty, very violent and … you could almost imagine it happening for real.  I love his children’s books, but I’m not sure whether I could stomach his other adult books unless they are funnier.  (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
King of the Antsby Charlie Higson, 1992. Abacus paperback 304 pages

Gone Girl meets The Secret History – not quite, but a good try

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Amelia

When a novel sets itself up on the front cover to be compared to Gone Girl (my review here), and in other places I’ve seen it compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it raises the bar rather high…

Kate is a hard-working lawyer and single mum to teenage daughter Amelia, who appears to have been doing alright at her posh Brooklyn high school, despite her workaholic mum’s absences, and not knowing who her father is. When she is at home, Kate tries really hard and she and Amelia have a good relationship but, as she will find out, she has no idea at all of what’s going on in her daughter’s life, until one tragic day.

On that day, Kate is about to start one of the biggest presentations of her career, when she gets a call from her daughter’s school.  Amelia, the hard-studying, academic, over-achieving student has been suspended for plagiarising an essay about Virginia Woolf, and Kate is required to collect her pronto.  By the time Kate arrives, having got delayed in the subway, Amelia is dead.  They say she jumped off the school roof.

It’s not until a couple of months later that Kate is together enough to question things, and when she receives an anonymous text that matches her own instincts – Amelia didn’t jump, she persuades the police to reopen the investigation. Gradually Kate, and Detective Lew Thompson will piece together what happened, as layer upon layer of secrets and lies are exposed. No-one, it seems, is squeaky clean – teachers, parents, pupils, friends, or colleagues, and the school is awash with teenagers exploring their sexuality, secret clubs and bullying.

The story mainly alternates between Kate and Amelia’s voices through flashbacks. Kate’s chapters are mostly in the present as she investigates her daughter’s life. Her past sections are from 1997, when she as a promising young lawyer got pregnant. Amelia’s chapters are all from the months preceding her death, and they include her text messages and Facebook statuses. The only times we don’t hear from Kate or Amelia are blog posts from the school’s anonymously authored scandal sheet.

I predicted the key ending early on, but other developments were less telegraphed, and there were some genuine surprises.  Although Kate was being put through the wringer with everything that happened, and for a mother losing a child is such a tragedy, I found Kate’s need for validation that she wasn’t really a bad mother a little tiring.  I was more interested in Amelia’s story and finding out the identities of secret texters and bloggers.

Despite the book being based around a high school, there is too much sex and swearing to recommend this as a YA novel, but it should appeal to slightly older New Adult readers.  I enjoyed it too, but it’s not in the same league as those other two page-turners I mentioned back at the top. (7/10)

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Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight, Simon & Schuster paperback 2013, 380 pages.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn