CTG Reviews: The Tournament by Matthew Reilly

The Tournament cover image

The Tournament cover image

What the blurb says: “England, 1546: a young Princess Elizabeth is surrounded by uncertainty. She is not currently in line for the throne but remains a threat to her older sister and brother. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor in the art of power and politics, is determined to keep her out of harm’s way. When an unprecedented invitation arrives from the Sultan of Constantinople, to an assembly of the finest players of chess from the whole civilised world, Ascham resolves to take Elizabeth with him.

But once there, the two find more danger than they left behind. There’s a killer on the loose and a Catholic cardinal has already been found mutilated. Ascham is asked by the Sultan to investigate the crime. But as he and Elizabeth delve deeper, they find dark secrets, horrible crimes and unheard-of depravity. Things that mark the young princess for life and define the queen she will become …”

It’s not often that a historical thriller, or any thriller for that matter, comes with an adult content warning on the front page. But this one does, and for good reason.

Although the story focuses on the thirteen year old Princess Elizabeth, it is introduced by her lifelong friend, Gwinny, as she tells the reader about a tale told to her by Elizabeth when she was on her deathbed. From thereon until the last chapter the story is told in Elizabeth’s words, telling of the wonders and horrors she witnessed on the trip she took with her tutor Roger Ascham.

The first hint of foul play comes as the group from England – Roger Ascham, the king’s chess player – Mr Giles, Elizabeth and her friend, Elsie, and Elizabeth’s chaperones – Mr & Mrs Ponsonby – near the city of Constantinople. Mrs Ponsonby falls ill from poison, confining her to bed and her husband to her side. Ascham, Giles, Elizabeth and Elsie continue into the city, but at the palace they find more danger. A serial killer has been terrorising the city, and at the opening ceremony for the tournament a cardinal is found mutilated. The Sultan asks Ascham to investigate the crime. He agrees, allowing Elizabeth to work with him. But as they start to uncover the secrets behind the murders they find evidence of shocking depravity and more people start to die.

As you might expect from a novel centring round a chess tournament, strategy, logic and power are strong themes throughout the story. There is also a lot of sex, and this is where the adult content warning comes in, as some of these scenes involve underage children and highlight how they are used and discarded by some characters at the palace.

Ascham is a smart and likable character, with more than a touch of Sherlock Holmes about him. Elizabeth is a curious and intelligent narrator with echoes of Dr Watson. She’s bold and courageous, but not driven to reckless fancy like her friend and companion on the trip, Elsie. Elsie is a fun-loving, but ultimately tragic character, who freely engages in the orgies held by the Crown Prince, not understanding the politics and power at play until it is too late.

This is the fastest paced historical novel I’ve ever read. There are numerous twists and turns throughout the story, and although the settings are clearly drawn and atmospheric there are no lengthy descriptions holding up the action.

I especially loved the tie-in between the quoted passages from ‘ Chess in the Middle Ages’ about the different chess pieces, and the chapters (and central characters) that followed, for example the references to the origins of the chess piece ‘The Bishop’ tying in with the action involving the cardinals.

A must-read for historical crime fiction fans and for all those who love a good mystery.

Highly Recommended.

[Many thanks to Orion for my copy of The Tournament]

CTG Interviews: Koethi Zan author of THE NEVER LIST

Koethi Zan (c) Pieter M van Hattem

Koethi Zan (c) Pieter M van Hattem

Today I’m delighted to welcome Koethi Zan, author of the fabulous psychological thriller, THE NEVER LIST, to the CTG blog.

I found THE NEVER LIST both spellbinding and chilling. Through Sarah (Caroline) the reader experiences the horror, and impact, of her ordeal in a way that feels very authentic. How did you go about researching the book?

I researched the book by reading essentially everything available about the experiences of women who have been abducted: their memoirs, trial transcripts, psychology textbooks, third party accounts and newspaper articles. I was quite submerged in it, which was a very dark and scary place to be for so long a time.  Of course, I can never know what that experience is truly like, but I feel I have developed a particular empathy for those victims, and I hope what I’ve learned comes across in the book.

For the BDSM parts of the book, I read books on the topic, but also spent a lot of time going down the internet rabbit hole of that culture.  I found myself on many shocking chat boards, websites, and blogs. At a certain point, I’d read so many disturbing accounts that I started to believe I could never be surprised by anything.  But there was always that one more site, one more story, one more image.

The idea of Sarah and Jennifer, after experiencing loss and trauma while still at school, creating their never list is fascinating. How did you get the idea for the never list, and would you call yourself a list person?

The relationship between Sarah and Jennifer is loosely based on my own relationship with my best friend.  She and I never had a formal, written list of ‘don’ts,’ but we did have a set of rules we’d follow because we were both slightly paranoid.  Perhaps not as much as my characters, but there are many shared themes in their lives and ours.

I am definitely a list person, and always have been.  I keep multiple to do lists at all times, each with different time horizons.  Otherwise the world would be too overwhelming.

What books and authors have inspired you as a reader and writer? 

Two crime fiction writers who influenced my book are quite different from one another: Patricia Highsmith, whose pacing is slow and menacing, her technique literary and psychological, and Steig Larsson, who is all action, action, action, with complex and dramatic storylines.

I started reading Highsmith years ago, and though I would not dare compare myself to her, she sparked my interest in crime fiction.  I love how she follows the progression of the criminal mind, usually making the reader complicit with the perpetrator, living out the story from his or her point of view.  For my book, I wanted to flip her formula on its head and give the victim’s perspective, so the reader would be intimately involved with the crime and its impact on the psyche, not just trying to solve the who, where and what of it.

Only in retrospect did I realize that Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy had such a huge impact on my book.  On the one hand, I love his fast action and over-the-top plotting.  Anything can happen in his books as long as it propels the story along, and that’s liberating for a writer.  On the other hand, I think my approach to violence is in stark contrast to his.  I read (and love) a lot of Scandinavian fiction, and as with Larsson’s, the violence is often explicit and raw.  I believe in uncovering this dark side of humanity—I think that’s a healthy way to cope with it—but I prefer to use suggestion rather than elaborate, graphic detail.  I think that technique can be quite effective because the reader personalizes the terror, drawing on his or her own worst nightmares to fill in the blanks.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan out the story first?

I knew from early on how the book would begin, how it would end, and generally how the characters would develop.  Those elements formed the outline of the book for me, and the rest fell into place as I wrote it. I never wrote an outline.

My actual writing process was driven by necessity. When I was writing The Never List, I had one hour a day to write, from 5 am to 6 am.  After that, I had to get the kids to school and go to work.  I set myself a minimum word count of 500 a day, five days a week.  And I had an incentive plan:  if I hit 10,000 words in any calendar month, I could take the rest of the month off.  I kept finishing earlier an earlier each month.

Now that I’m writing full-time, I still stick to my early morning writing routine and the word count requirements.  I’m conditioned to write in the early mornings now, and I love starting my day with my word count done.

THE NEVER LIST cover image

THE NEVER LIST cover image

THE NEVER LIST was an outstanding debut, and one of my favourite reads of 2013. What was your route to publication?

I was quite lucky. My husband is a writer and so when I’d finished a draft of the book, he mentioned it to his agent. I wasn’t quite ready to show it to anyone—no one had read a word of it yet, but his agent wanted to see it and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity.  It turned out that they liked it at the agency, so I was pretty over the moon about that.  They gave me some notes and we worked on it a bit, and then we took it to publishers. The day we sold it was certainly one of the happiest of my life. There were plenty of tears and celebrations in my house for at least a week.  I’m still pinching myself.

And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?

I am writing a second book now–not a sequel, but a different stand-alone book.  I continue to be interested in the same themes:  power, psychological disturbances, dealing with a dark past.  My goal is to write a book that builds suspense but also deals with complex issues.  I hope to finish it up this spring.

 

That’s definitely a book I’m  looking forward to reading.

A huge thank you to Koethi Zan for popping by the CTG blog.

THE NEVER LIST is out on 30th January in paperback. You can read our review of it here: https://crimethrillergirl.com/2014/01/27/ctg-reviews-the-never-list-by-koethi-zan/

CTG Reviews: The Never List by Koethi Zan

THE NEVER LIST cover image

THE NEVER LIST cover image

I first read The Never List when it came out in hardback last year. It was one of the standout books of 2013 for me. It’s now available in paperback, and to celebrate I’ve reposted my review …

What the blurb says: “For years, best friends Sarah and Jennifer kept what they called the ‘Never List’: a list of actions to be avoided, for safety’s sake, at all costs. But one night, they failed to follow their own rules. Sarah has spent ten years trying to forget her ordeal. But now the FBI has news that forces her to revisit her memories, and finally attempt to find justice for Jennifer. If she is to keep her captor behind bars, Sarah needs to work with the other women who shared her nightmare. But they won’t be happy to hear from her. Because down there in the dark, Sarah wasn’t just a victim.”

From the very first page, no, the very first paragraph, this story had me hooked. I don’t know if it was the terrifying premise – three women imprisoned in a cellar by a man they thought that they could trust; the unwavering loyalty to her friend Jennifer that the protagonist, Sarah, maintains despite the danger that in puts her in; or the three women’s determination, against all odds and all that had happened to them, to succeed in their quest for justice and uncover the shocking truth. Whatever it was, I just couldn’t put it down.

One of the things that, for me, made the story seem so real was the voice of Sarah. A prisoner in her own home at the start of the book, she has to face her fears (and there are so very many of them) just to be able to leave her own building. She knows that she has allowed herself to be governed by fear, and that it’s far from normal, yet she has engineered a life for herself that allows her to work, to eat the food she likes and see her physiatrist without ever leaving the safety of her apartment. She is still a prisoner, only now it’s within her own home. And she is still receiving letters from the man who abducted her.

Then she gets a call from the FBI telling her that the man responsible for her imprisonment, and her friend Jennifer’s death, is coming up for parole. The news spurs Sarah into action, setting her on a quest to not only keep her abuser in jail, but also to get justice for Jennifer by finding her body. It’s hard to go into any more detail without spoilers, all I’ll say is that Jennifer manages to reunite with Tracey and Christine, the other two survivors from the cellar, and re-enter the world inhabited by her abductor to seek out the clues, and the people, that the FBI failed to find.

For their ‘Never List’ Sarah and Jennifer had imagined every terrible thing that could happen, and made a list of actions to prevent against them. At the creepy and heart-wrenchingly scary climax of the book, Sarah learns that sometimes the truth is even worse than the terrors in her imagination.

A chilling, page-turner of a psychological thriller: a real must-read for all fans of the genre.

Highly Recommended.

[Many thanks to Harvill Secker for my copy of THE NEVER LIST]

ps. pop back on Wednesday when I’ll be interviewing Koethi Zan about writing The Never List, her writing process and all things bookish …

CTG Reviews: Entry Island by Peter May

Entry Island cover image

Entry Island cover image

What the blurb says: “Detective Sime MacKenzie’s life in Montreal is one of loneliness and regret. And so when he is assigned to a seemingly open-and-shut murder case on a remote island 850 miles from the Canadian mainland, he departs readily. But Sime’s time away will be anything but a holiday. And Entry Island will prove anything but a haven. Sime may have left his domestic demons behind, but waiting for him in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a far darker destiny.”

Entry Island is a standalone novel from Peter May, the award-winning author behind the highly acclaimed Lewis trilogy.

It starts with the murder of a wealthy businessman at his home. The number one suspect: his wife. She’s also the only witness. But when Detective Sime MacKenzie and the eight-strong team of detectives and crime scene investigators reach Entry Island they find that the case may not be as easy to solve as their leader, Lieutenant Crozes, had hoped.

Sime is the odd one out. He’s the only native English speaker within the French speaking team, and has only joined them for this case due to the principle language of Entry Island being English rather than French. With unresolved tensions between him and his ex-wife, Marie-Ange – the team’s forensic expert – the atmosphere is far from comfortable. What’s more, Sime finds himself inexplicably drawn to the widow of the murdered man, and is unable to fight the feeling that somehow he knows her.

As the investigation gets underway, Sime finds that the insomnia he’s been suffering since his marriage break-up is getting worse. Now, in the few minutes sleep he is able to snatch, he recalls the vivid stories his Grandmother told him of his ancestors: crofters who had lived on the Isle of Lewis, who were removed from their homes during the brutal ‘clearings’ initiated by greedy landlords who wanted to replace them with sheep, and forced onto boats to ‘the new world’.

The descriptions of the two main locations: the modern-day Entry Island, and the historical look-back at the Isle of Lewis, really bring the settings to life. They conjure up strong images of the geography, the close-knit communities and their cultures. For Sime, the past and the present are strangely linked, and as the story progresses, connections and similarities between his own family history and that of the prime suspect emerge.

For me, this novel was a real treat. I loved the sleep-deprived, conflicted, and often confused character of Sime for his determination to get to the truth no matter who, or what, was pressuring him to finish the investigation fast. Often battling his inner monologue as much as his colleagues, he follows every lead no matter now unlikely, even when it puts him in personal danger.

The author artfully weaves the modern day investigation and the historical story of Sime’s ancestors together, hinting at connections between the two but never quite revealing the implications of the past on the present until the final resolution.

A hauntingly compelling, highly atmospheric read.

Highly Recommended.

[With many thanks to Quercus for my copy of ENTRY ISLAND]

CTG Interviews: Peter May author of the Lewis Trilogy and new standalone Entry Island

Peter May

Peter May

I’m delighted to be joined on the CTG blog today by Peter May, author of the fabulous Lewis Trilogy,  whose new book ENTRY ISLAND is out this month.

So, first question, as well as writing the award winning Lewis Trilogy, you’ve had successful careers as a journalist and a television and screenwriter. What was it that attracted you to becoming a novelist?

I always wanted to be a novelist – since I wrote my first book at the age of four!  My parents taught me to read and write before I went to school and the first thing I did was write a story, and with my mum’s help sewed the pages together to make a book.  (You can see the result on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTxOEfwclh0 )  Journalism was my way of trying to make a living as a writer, since jobs as novelists were not exactly thick on the ground.  Journalism led me into television, and a lucrative career as a scriptwriter, editor and then producer.  But I quit all that (including the income) in the mid-nineties to try, finally, to make my living writing books.  And, well…  I’m still here.

Your new book, Entry Island, is just out. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Entry Island is a story that takes place in two time frames – contemporary and historical.  The contemporary element is set in Quebec, Canada, and more specifically the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  A detective, Sime Mackenzie, from Montreal is sent with an investigation team to the tiny Entry Island – the only English-speaking island in the Magdalen archipelago – following the murder of its wealthiest resident.  But on arrival he finds that the victim’s wife, and prime suspect in his murder, is unaccountably familiar to him, even although they have never met.  The historical story is told through dreams and recollections of diary entries read to the detective by his grandmother when he was a child.  It tells the tale of a young man (whose name Sime shares) growing up in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in the 19th century at the time of the Highland Clearances, when tens of thousands of people were driven out of their homes and forced on to boats for the New World.  When the young man and his family are brutally evicted, he finds himself on a boat bound for Quebec.  At a certain point both stories converge and the link between them, along with a resolution to the Entry Island murder, is revealed.

Your books always have a fabulous sense of place about them, what’s your secret to creating this?

Many of my early writing experiences, from the start of my teens on, were screenplays of movies I wanted to make.  I always had a very visual sense of storytelling, and when I began to realise that I didn’t need a multi-million pound budget and a film crew to tell those stories, I took that visual sense with me into the writing of my books.  Basically, I described the pictures in my head.  I went to all those places in my mind and wanted to take the reader there with me, to experience them as real.  Not just visually, but sensually as well.

Could you tell us a little about your writing process: do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?

I spend four to five months developing and researching an idea.  Then I brainstorm for a week and write a very detailed storyline that runs anything up to 20,000 words.  From there I set myself a very disciplined schedule, rising at 6am and writing 3000 words a day.  The book is finished within six to eight weeks.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to publication as crime writers?

Write about what you know.  And remember that no matter how clever your story, readers won’t get involved unless they care about the characters.  Don’t be put off by rejection.  It happens to all of us.  After all, “The Blackhouse” was rejected by every major publisher in the UK, and the Lewis Trilogy has now sold more than a million copies.

And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?

A crazy year lies ahead.  I am in the research and development phase of a new book, which I hope to write in the late spring.  I have books tours in the UK and France, and the USA at the end of the year.  I will be at festivals in Harrowgate, Edinburgh and Bloody Scotland, and in this Scottish Homecoming year, VisitScotland are keen to use my books as a magnet for foreign visitors to Scotland.  A visit to Canada might also be in the offing.

Sounds like 2014 is going to be hectic! A huge thank you to Peter for dropping by the CTG blog. 

[Stop by on Friday to read my review of the fabulous ENTRY ISLAND]

Events Alert: Iceland Noir Festival of Crime Fiction 2014

Iceland Noir banner

Iceland Noir banner

After a hugely successful first year, Iceland Noir – the first Icelandic crime writing festival – will be running again in 2014.

This year it will take place on Friday 21st – Saturday 22nd November at the Nordic House in Reykjavík, Iceland.

The lineup  is still under wraps, but registration is open and you can take advantage of the early bird ticket offer right now.

Hop over to the Iceland Noir Facebook page to find out more at: http://www.facebook.com/IcelandNoir

Click on the following link to book: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/iceland-noir-tickets-10220179833

CTG Reviews: The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood

The Killer Next Door cover image

The Killer Next Door cover image

What the blurb says: “In a gloomy, bedsit-riddled South London wreck, lorded over by a lecherous landlord, a horrifying collection quietly waits to be discovered. Yet all six residents have something to hide.

Collette is on the run from her ex-boss; Cher is an underage children’s home escapee; lonely Thomas tries to make friends with his neighbours; while a gorgeous asylum seeker and a ‘quiet man’ nobody sees try to keep themselves hidden. And there for them all is Vesta, a woman who knows everything that goes on in the house – or thought she did.

Then in the dead of night, a terrible accident pushes them into an uneasy alliance. But one of them is a killer, expertly hiding their pastime, all the while closing in on their next victim …”

This is not a novel to read alone on a dark night!

Number 23 seems to operate within its own contained ecosystem. Each tenant existing alongside each other, unaware of the magnitude of their housemate’s secrets. And leaving this reader questioning just how well can you ever know your neighbours?

It’s hard to write about this psychological thriller without giving away spoilers, so I’ll not go into the plot much as I really wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. And, anyway, the real joy of this book is the vividly painted characters. Fearful Collette, with a stolen holdall filled with cash and only in the country so she can visit her dying mother; bold young Cher, with her schemes and scams, her adopted cat Psycho, and watched over by Vesta; Vesta herself, seventy years old and, having lived in the same house her whole life, wondering now whether life has somehow passed her by; Hossein, gorgeous, widowed, and desperately waiting it out until his residency is approved and he can work and build himself a new life; Thomas, the shy, quiet, part-time Citizen’s Advice worker; and the mysterious music lover who lives on the top floor and is hardly ever seen. Each of their lives is intriguing, each of them hides a great sadness, one of them is a murderer.

The question though, is which one? Some of the descriptions about how the killer preserves their victims are not for the faint-hearted. Yet, artfully, the author manages to make the killer seem both clinical and remorseless, and a rather pitiful character. But, certainly not one to be underestimated.

With the reader exposed to the killer’s thoughts and actions, there is an ever increasing sense of doom that raises the tension notch-by-notch as the story progresses.

I found that this book had me musing on what causes good people to do bad things, and bad people to do good things? This isn’t a straightforward story of good versus evil, it explores the grey area between the two, and the aftermath of what happens to those who tread there.

Engrossing, chilling, and packed with suspense.

Highly Recommended.

[With thanks to Sphere for my copy of The Killer Next Door]