Cold Storage by David Koepp.

There was a great deal of hype surrounding this book, Cold Storage by David Koepp, which kept popping up in my email and all my book-related social media. I always enjoy a good sci-fi thriller and apocalyptic-type narrative, so thought I would give it a go. Koepp comes with good credentials having written the screenplays to some very successful blockbusters. I was ready for an edge-of-your-seat, high-octane ride. And, I did get that in parts.

What should have probably sent some warning bells my way was the fact many critics mentioned how funny the book was. While laughter is often the natural response to danger or being frightened, I am not entirely certain the end of the world should be that hilarious. But I reserved my judgement.

This is story that begins 30 odd years before the main events. We read about a team of scientists who travel to a remote community in Western Australia where a fungus has wiped out an entire community. The scientists retrieve the fungus and manage to return it to the US where they put it in a storage facility deep underground where a constant freezing temperature should keep the deadly organism dormant.

Should.

Fast forward to now and two security guards at a storage facility are puzzled when an alarm sounds and they discover a hidden vault deep underground which has thermal controls that are malfunctioning. When they realise just how catastrophic this is and infected people and creatures start to run amok, they are forced to put their own lives in danger to save the world. But, they’re not alone. Called to take control is retired scientist cum operative, Roberto Diaz. Older, wiser and with a lot less to lose, he makes the hard decisions, decisions that may yet cost more lives than he bargained for.

This is a story that requires you to suspend your disbelief and then some. I am all for that if the narrative takes hold of me. This mostly did though at times I found the anthropomorphising of the fungus a bit irksome and the rather gruesome antics of the animals more than my credibility could bear. Also, I didn’t find it as funny as clearly others did. Maybe my humour gene wasn’t working. Not sure. Some of the characters are cliched, but others work very well.

You can tell this novel is written by a screenwriter as some of the scenes are very cinematic and there’s no doubt, there are parts of the novel where the pages are being turned swiftly because the pace is thrilling. Unfortunately, there are also parts, for this reader at least, where I was turning the pages to simply get to the end.

Overall, a good holiday read that will mean you never look at deer, cats or fungus the same way again.

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The Long Call by Anne Cleeves

How fabulous is this, hey? Anne Cleeves has started a new series and while I am disappointed I won’t get to read any more about Vera Stanhope or Jimmy Perez (the lead characters from her other respective series), it’s been exciting to get to know a new character. In The Long Call, the first book in the Two Rivers series, this lead character and detective is the rather gentle and self-effacing Matthew Venn. A man with an interesting and troubled past, having been raised and then rejected by an evangelical community, Matthew has a tendency to empathise with most people he encounters, even the criminal kind. The hard-bitten, gum-shoe detective he ain’t.

The book opens with Matthew as an outsider at his father’s funeral, a position to which Matthew is, sadly, sort of accustomed, as much as he’s tried to compensate for this as well. When he takes on his first major case in the Two Rivers area, Matthew has to both learn the strengths and weaknesses of his team as well as the area he and his beloved partner have moved into. But just when Matthew thought he could forge ahead personally and professionally, put his difficult past behind him, the killer lurking in the region has other ideas…

This book, like the first book in any good series, is a slow-burn. Beautifully written and constructed, the reader is taken into not only the crime that rocks a community, but the lives of those seeking to solve it, in particular, Matthew and his team. We’re given insights into the personal foibles and ambitions of all involved and it’s so typical of Cleeves that she says so much with so few words. Likewise, the area is brought to life with a few choice phrases, and it leaps off the pages in all its rainy, coastal and cold glory.

A wonderful, lose-yourself-in-an-armchair read. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz

Ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson was released, I have adored this series featuring one of the most original and feisty, bad-ass women in crime/thriller fiction, Lisbeth Salander. When David Lagercrantz took over writing the series in the wake of Larson’s death, like many, I was worried about how another writer could replicate and progress Larson’s characters, let alone his vision. Well, Lagercrantz has done a stellar job and his books are page-turners and thrillers par excellence. Up until this book, I also thought that Lagercrantz had kept Larson’s Lisbeth alive and kicking. However, in this latest instalment, there’s a sense in which she’s diminished. No, possibly that’s not the right word. There’s a sense in which her brilliance, her capacity to embrace both her dark and light sides, has weakened and thus this book doesn’t twinkle as brightly in the Salander/Blomkvist universe. However, it is very plot-drive – for better and worse – and it is still a well, written and mostly gripping read.

The novel opens with Lisbeth hiding in Moscow. There to enact vengeance, when push comes to shove, or gun to trigger, she finds herself unable to perform and is forced into the type of hiding on Lisbeth can pull off.

Concerned for Lisbeth’s welfare, back in Stockholm, Mikael Blomkvist is caught up in the death of a homeless man. Sadly not unusual in itself, a persistent coroner has cause to believe the man was murdered and asks Blomkvist to look into his background. Knowing Salander will be unable to resist, Mikael asks for assistance as well. What unfolds is a story of corporate greed, political machinations, ‘fake-news”, Russian cyber “troll-factories,” cover-ups, betrayal and murder.

There were parts of this book I raced through, eagerly anticipating how something was going to be resolved, but other parts were a bit pedestrian and dull by comparison. There are basically two storylines unfolding simultaneously and, frankly, one feels quite contrived (even though it’s interesting) while the other doesn’t quite meet the high standards Larson set and Lagercrantz has, up until this novel, easily met. I am possibly being hyper-critical because this was a good read nonetheless but there’s also a sense in which the Lisbeth we’ve grown to know and love is missing in action for too much of the book. As for Blomkvist, well, he’s in danger of becoming someone who rests on his impressive laurels. Let’s hope Lagercrantz doesn’t do the same.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t sure what to expect reading The Testaments, especially after its prequel, The Handmaid’s Tale had such a profound impact on my life – as it did with so many others too (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the TV series, despite all the amazing reviews and awards, because I didn’t want the impression the book left to be diluted or, dare I say, translated in any way). It’s not incorrect to say that because of studying that book at university (and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus), I underwent a career change becoming an academic for over 25 years. Over some of that time, I introduced others to the wonder, power and terrible vision of Offred and Gilead’s story, reliving and appreciating its formidable narrative every single time. So, what would the sequel a book, as Atwood herself said, 35 years in the making offer? Would it destroy the foundations laid so long ago or build upon them in a way that is as astonishing and frightening as the first book?

The Testaments begins fifteen years after Offred disappeared from Gilead and readers heard her harrowing tale (and which we’d just borne witness to), interpreted through the lens of history and the dry rhetoric of an academic conference – a brilliant metaphor on its own. Told from three different points of view – that of one of the most influential and dreadful of the Aunts, a young Gileadian girl destined to become a Wife, and then from an outsider’s perspective – Gilead, the state that oppresses and subjugates in the name of God and specific interpretations of the Bible – is no less chilling and the themes and incidents no less prescient than they were in The Handmaid’s Tale. Once more, the reader is given insight into the socio-cultural structures that make Gilead; how the regime demands complete and utter surrender and also how it inculcates people into being complicit in upholding its dominant paradigms, even when they oppress them.

Just as we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re given snapshots into the coup that overturned a mighty Republic, and how those in power maintained it. Through particular individuals and roles, we’re also given entrée to the domestic arrangements – whereas it was once through the eyes of a Handmaiden, this time it is mainly through the Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and daughters of the privileged.

How Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world, how it is and isn’t tolerated and the resistance movements that try and aid those wishing to escape its clutches, is also shown, as are how these organisations are represented within Gilead. Propaganda is not exclusive to one country or ideology, even if the reader is clearly meant to identify with the freer world.

Whereas the three different narrative strands first appear distinct, as this tale unfolds, they’re slowly woven together until the title of the book becomes both literal and another powerful trope.

Questions posed or left unanswered in The Handmaid’s Tale are mostly resolved (which was terrific), and what I really liked is that once more, historians are not let off the hook, even if the work they do isn’t disrespected but revealed to be, by nature, limited as well as complex and nuanced (even if some in that field are not).

This was an at once extraordinary and terrifying read in that so much of what unfolds holds up a dark mirror to contemporary politics, gender and sexual identity, social roles and movements. But it’s also fabulously entertaining, page-turning and exciting as well – Atwood is a master storyteller who knows how to keep her readers riveted. I wish I could say that The Testaments is only a marvellous and authoritative work of fiction, but I fear it is something much more and even darker – it’s also a warning. One has only to look at the state of world politics now and the rise of the extreme religious right to see parallels. Atwood has put us on notice and woe betide if we don’t heed what she says…

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The Naturalist’s Daughter by Tea Cooper

This is a wonderful novel, set in Australia and England, about two extraordinary young women, a century apart, who are embroiled in the great scientific mystery of the Antipodes that was the platypus.

In 1808, young Rose Winton adores working with her father, Charles, studying and creating detailed drawings of the platypus in its natural environment. Clever, quick-witted and resourceful, Rose is a wonderful foil and encouragement to her kind, studious father who is supported in his research, in part, by a meagre sum of money from none other than the great botanist and scientist, Joseph Banks in England. When an opportunity to present his findings to the Royal Society in London arrives, Charles Winton is thrilled – at last, all his hard work and dedication will reap the rewards and recognition he deserves. But when something happens that prevents him going, he sends Rose, equipped with his glorious and detailed sketchbook and findings, in his stead. Filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation, little does Rose know that her journey to the “mother-country” will be just that – a dangerous journey into a past that she had no knowledge of and which her mother, transported to the colonies years earlier, has tried hard to forget.

At the newly established Mitchell library in Sydney 1908, Tamsin Alleyn has been tasked with proving the provenance of an old sketchbook that is going to be donated by a reclusive woman living in the Hunter Valley. Sent to see the old woman, Tamsin is thrown into the company of lawyer and wanna-be antiquarian book dealer, Shaw Everdene, and his clients, people with a vested interest in not only the sketch-book but discovering the origins and real owner as well. What Tamsin learns – about the book, but also about Shaw, herself and her past, simply deepens the mystery of not only the sketchbook, but those who filled it with their studies and what happened to them so long ago…

Once I started this book, I found it hard to put down. The settings are wonderfully created, whether it’s the Hunter Valley, early 1900s Sydney or London and Cornwall in the 1800s. The characters are as vividly drawn as the sketches of the platypus and the small but rich details of life on the land and in the city and the spaces between captivatingly rendered. History is brought to life in this cleverly plotted book, as is early Australia and the relationships between the Indigenous population, the land and the white settlers, but never at the expense of a rollicking good story. I stayed up till the wee hours to finish this marvellous novel and it was worth the thick head and bleary-eyes today. I look forward to reading more of Copper’s books.

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