The Shrine by L.J. Ross

It’s hard to believe that L.J. Ross has already written sixteen DCI Ryan books (and others besides), but I am so glad she has. This series is like comfort food. When you pick up the next one in the series, you know you’re in great hands. The familiar characters whom, over the years, you’ve grown to genuinely care about and will to succeed and survive appear and you settle in, knowing the recipe is being prepared by a master.

This book is yet another very satisfying meal. When a colleague of Ryan and co., a high-ranking officer, is shot dead outside her home and then an explosion goes off in Durham Cathedral and a priceless relic is stolen, Ryan’s team are swiftly put into action. Ryan (for reasons I won’t reveal) is forced to bury personal feelings and simply get on with the job.

But as the cases unravel, it’s clear that not only may they be related, but the killer hasn’t finished…

Character driven, these books are slower-paced than many crime novels, allowing plot and certainly anything gritty to slide into the background as setting and dialogue and the bonds that connect the main characters are brought to the fore.  This is what makes them both an easy but immensely pleasurable read and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

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The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

This was an unusual book to which I had incredibly mixed reactions. I can only think of this as a positive thing – for both the reader and the author. In telling the story of Lucy, a breast cancer survivor who, while struggling to deal with her new body (never mind the trauma of cancer treatment and everything the mind, body, and those around you deal with post-recovery – I speak from experience), has a strange and incredible experience with an octopus.

This has a profound impact on her life in many, many ways, changing her both internally and externally and altering the relationships she has with those closest to her, those she meets and, above all, the natural environment and the fauna that inhabit it in ways humans cannot possibly comprehend.

The novel opens in one of the most original ways I’ve read in a long time and it took me a moment to become accustomed to the voice. I found it strangely beautiful and moving – particularly when I understood it was a wondrous creature narrating. This occurs at different times in the novel- creatures take over the story. I am not as convinced by the success of those other voices or the position they hold in the book as I was this first one. In many ways, they jarred a little. That said, when Lucy and the humans and their interactions take over, the story moves well and the characters are interesting and mostly engaging.

There were times I really didn’t like Lucy at all. I struggled so hard with this because as a woman, cancer survivor, and someone who feels bonds with the environment (especially in Tasmania), I felt I should like her more. But, as is the case with others in the book, she is flawed and all too human and a bloody great hypocrite too (I really, really loathed some of the things she did). Yet, she owns her failings while some others excuse them or seek to blame others. Perhaps the reader isn’t meant to like her very much and that is the point. By the end, she is somewhat redeemed, but only somewhat. Thinking over this, I find this to be a positive rather than a negative and think the author is to be commended for writing such an honest character who can potentially polarise readers. No doubt, others will love her – and that’s a sign of terrific writing and characterisation.

The Tasmanian environment is beautifully captured – I could smell the sea, see and inhale the scents of the various land and sea scapes that were described. Hortle really captures the sense of local life as well and what it’s like to both live in a small community and enter one as an outsider.

The feminist component of the book, the examination of women’s bodies and their objectification and the ways in which we can be complicit in this or seek to resist and subvert it is sometimes heavy-handed. Again, I feel awkward saying that as I understood what Lucy was trying to say and how she also set out to resist dominant narratives of femininity and find agency in a world that so often denies it to those who don’t conform, but it was sometimes (only sometimes) overplayed and usually because the point had already been made really well earlier. Still, we need these kinds of stories of resistance and the whys and wherefores of them – the way women particularly (and men) collaborate in their subjection, work within and around it or refuse to partake. It’s a continuously negotiated space that, like sand, can shift and change in a moment. If you think about in this way, the novel explores this well.  

Overall, I did enjoy the story – the challenges it gave to me as a reader. It is well-written and certainly original story-telling.

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The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle.

A.G Riddle’s books are what I would call a guilty pleasure. His Winter World series and Pandemic novels were easy-read page turners that were perfect holiday fare. The first book in this series, The Atlantis Gene was similar in that it was a fast-paced sci-fi action adventure story that was good enough for the sequel to beckon.

While there were some worthy moments in this second book, especially near the beginning, I’m afraid that even for this genre, there were times it was impossible to suspend my disbelief. Not only did dead characters keep resurrecting but one of the main characters performs the equivalent of an ex machina manoeuvre, meaning that all the questions the reader and thus characters had could be (conveniently) answered as she suddenly became a font of all knowledge (because… shhhhh… she’s not who we think she is). It became a bit too much.

So, while the book and characters were pitched into chaos which had folk flying, sailing, running, digging beneath the earth and making all kinds of discoveries and taking incredible risks, being transported here and there, I virtually ceased to care. My investment in the story, which became incredibly convoluted and expedient, ran its course. Not even the science was plausible or even, for that matter, interesting enough to give the wild tale credibility anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Riddle knows how to write and the short pacey chapters keep you turning the pages, even if it’s only to get to the end. Nah, that’s not entirely fair. There’s a smidgin of wanting to know left that did that.

The ending prepares the reader for the third instalment. Not sure I have the energy.

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Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Robert Bryndza burst onto the crime-writing scene a few years back with his excellent Erika Foster series, which I thoroughly enjoy. It was with great excitement then that I picked up this first book in a new series, featuring police officer, Kate Marshall.

Kate was a high-flying young police woman who, after sleeping with her superior, also catches a sought-after serial killer – the Nine Elms murderer. Instead of being rewarded for her efforts, she leaves the force in disgrace. The story begins fifteen years later as Kate, now a mother and a criminology lecturer, is living a quiet life by the coast, teaching keen students and interacting with her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper.

When she’s approached by distraught parents with a missing daughter, Caitlyn, essentially a cold case that the police never took seriously but which the parents believe is connected to the Nine Elms murders, she reluctantly takes it on. In the meantime, a Nine Elms copycat killer has emerged and the body count is growing. Against her will, Kate finds herself doing private investigating with Tristan, not only to try and resolve what happened to Caitlyn, but learn what she can about this mimic killer, a killer who is getting too close to Kate and her son, Jake, for comfort.

This novel opens in a strong and brutal manner (which is Bryndza’s style), grasping the reader by the collar and not letting go for a while. After this knockout beginning, the book slows a little as we’re introduced to Kate and invited to peel back the various layers that make the person she is now. Likewise, her professional and personal environment are described and explored, setting the groundwork for the character and future stories. But before long the pace builds again to breakneck speed as past and present collide. Well-written, tightly plotted and with great characters, this is a fabulous introduction to a great new series.

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The Noble Path by Peter May

Having enjoyed May’s Lewis trilogy and Lockdown (which was written fifteen years ago and rushed to publication because of the pandemic) I thought I would give this one a go. Also written decades ago and then re-edited to exclude some sex scenes, it’s set in London, Thailand and Cambodia – during the reign of the terrifying Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

While I knew this might be difficult reading in that what the poor Cambodians suffered during those bleak years is just shocking, I also have a vested interest in contemporary Cambodia. Not only do I support a school in the provinces, but have a lovely sponsored child there both of whom I visit, with like-minded friends who also have children and help this school, every year.  I’ve also been to Thailand often. I girded my loins ready for what I suspected might be a punishing read.

It was, but not for the reasons I anticipated. This was such a predictable, cliched read that relied far too heavily on reductive stereotypes (gender, sexual, cultural, familial) to tell its story as well as giving a sort of nod to 1980s action flicks. At least, that’s what it felt like.

Focussed mainly on disgraced British army officer, Jack Elliot, whose employed as a mercenary to go into Cambodia and rescue a wealthy refugee’s family from the Khmer Rouge, it also explores his daughter’s efforts to find the father she never knew was alive.

While there are moments that are heartfelt and gripping (some of the scenes in Cambodia wrench your heart our of your chest) and do remind us of the horror of those times, I also found it gratuitous in parts. The villains, especially the Thai people (Jack has to enter Cambodia through Thailand and rely on a dubious set of networks to admit him. His daughter is also drawn into the web these people weave), were portrayed in such a negative and racist way that it was hard to stomach. I’m all for terrible villains and not one to spare cultural sensitivities when it comes to a good story – providing they don’t simply reproduce already negative and, frankly, inaccurate tropes. But herein lies the problem, I’m not convinced this is a good story and feel it might have been better off left as the anachronism it clearly is, not republished. That’s how it read to me, as something out of time – as a book that relies too heavily on clichés and overblown cultural, gendered and sexual stereotypes (including masculine braggadocio), about how the white guy, even one as morally compromised as Jack, can still be the great (white) hero and basically do better what no Thai or Cambodian person evidently could. James Bond he ain’t – just a wannabe but without the wink and the nod that so often accompanies 007’s missions and actions.

I know I’m not explaining myself lucidly, but whereas parts of the book read very well, other parts bordered on offensive and exploitative – using the misery of a nation and its people as fodder for what could have been an excellent tale.

It’s not without merit. As I said, some scenes were genuinely affecting and plot is interesting, but overall, I wish it hadn’t been republished and that I’d perhaps picked it up knowing it was written long ago, in a different time. Maybe, I would have been more generous. Maybe the book should have been titled, The Ignoble Path.

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The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs

While it’s been a long time between books set in Ancient Rome, never before have I read one that focusses on Etruscan culture and, in particular, those from a region only twelve miles from the Tiber River, called Veii.

This story centres on the marriage of a young Roman woman named Caecilia who, to satisfy a treaty, is married to a nobleman from Veii, the wealthy and brave Mastarna. Thrust into an unfamiliar and enemy culture, aware she’s a pawn in a political game, Caecilia is terrified of losing her Roman-ness and fights hard to maintain her roots. However, Etruscan culture and rituals, their religion and treatment of others – particularly women whom they see as equals – differs so much from what she’d been raised to believe and fear and that’s before she considers the unexpected surprise that is her older husband.

Drawn into familial as well as social dramas of her new Etruscan society, Caecilia slowly learns that it’s not just Roman leaders prepared to use her for their own ends. But as time passes, she also starts to question where her loyalties actually lie…

This book was absolutely fascinating. The history and detail included in the story were riveting, but never at the expense of plot. On the contrary, all the little facts about life in these times, from the way the sexes were treated, class structure, dress, meals, religious rituals, modes of address, were all interwoven expertly throughout the narrative. Likewise, the setting is beautifully rendered. You see the citadel of the Veii, the frequent parties they indulge in, the manner of their rituals, just as you can envisage the landscape and changing seasons. It’s easy to tell that Storss not only knows this part of history well, but is passionate about it too, and that passion is infectious. I learned so much, but in that great way that good historical fiction can teach a reader, not by bashing you over the head with the amount of research the author has done, but gently through story-telling.

And what a story this is. Against a backdrop of enmity, political machinations and potential anarchy, Caecilia, for an educated woman, is also young in her. It’s quite one thing to be able to read and write, but she lacks experience, is headstrong, stubborn and tends to follow her head when it should be her heart and vice-a-versa. She’s a bag of trouble, but also believable. Annoying, but believable. Her opportunity for personal growth is constantly sabotaged by the doubts that others put into her head until she doesn’t know whom she should trust or why. Easy to understand when she’s been shoved into such an alien culture and way of being. She turns to the foundations upon which she was raised to anchor her, but often at great cost.

I look forward to learning how she develops in the later books and what Storrs has in store for her, the culture she was born into and that which she was forced to adopt.

If you enjoy historical fiction and are searching for something really different, then this could be the book for you.

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