The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

The second book in the “John Gower” series, The Invention of Fire is stellar historical fiction, with a gripping plot, terrific characters and a fantastic grasp of the period that plunges the reader into the political machinations of 1386 London.

When numerous bodies are found dumped in a the public latrine in the city, all bar one having died from being shot by the new and deadly weapon, the handgonne, Gower (and others) are both concerned and intrigued. When yet more bodies turn up, including some innocent peasants in the English settlement of Calais, it’s evident something dark and terrible is afoot. All the evidence points to one of the Lord Appellants, those who managed to wrest power from the mercurial King Richard II.  

Gower, in his usual indomitable way, does what he can to not only discover the culprit, but the reasons behind what appears to make no sense – these random multiple deaths – and on the eve of the Riding – the changeover of the London Mayor. 

In the meantime, a talented craftsman, who works at a London foundry, is asked to develop a new weapon without informing his employer. Torn between loyalty to his mistress and his country, but also carrying a deadly secret, the man has little choice but to obey what’s against his better moral judgement. 

A married couple join a pilgrimage to the Palatinate near Durham – innocent enough on the surface, but what are they really hiding?

Only Gower, with a little help from the newly appointed JP of Kent, Geoffrey Chaucer, has the nous to unravel the threads that tie these people, mysteries and dire circumstances together – but can he before more death hits the streets – or worse, those closest to the throne?

Masterfully written, with great use of real history and invented scenarios, this is a murder-mystery filled with intrigue, suspense and great dialogue, all set against the medieval landscape of England. Characters from history and Holsinger’s imagination leap from the page and his eye for detail – historic and personal – make this an exceptional read. 

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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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Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5) by Kate Atkinson

I adore Kate Atkinson’s writing, and I particularly love her Jackson Brodie series. Big Sky, the fifth book to include the exacerbating PI, finds him older, not necessarily wiser, and relocated to what he thinks is a sleepy seaside town. Waltzing in and out of his life is his former flame, the actor, Julia and their monosyllabic teenage and the lovable Labrador who, just like Jackson, is ageing – sometimes disagreeably.

When the novel opens, Jackson is in the middle of a fairly standard case, investigating a suspected adulterer. But it’s when he has a confrontation with a man on a cliff, that Jackson stumbles into something both incredibly seedy and very dangerous, not just for him, but for an ever-widening circle of victims – some who don’t even know that’s what they are.

Once more, Atkinson produces a marvellous, slow-burning and atmospheric work that not only deepens readers’ relationship with Brodie, but introduces us to a dizzying cast of characters. At first, I have to admit, I did wonder where the book was going, as so many other characters seemed to dominate the chapters and Brodie didn’t seem to get much of a chance to shine. Even so, I loved the way that, in a few words, she could capture the essence of a person – their flaws, foibles and strengths. The deceptions that seemingly decent people perpetrate on each other all while occupying high moral ground is explored and exposed. As the book continues, you become caught up in the lives and relationships of these other characters and the tangled web that is being weaved but – and this is to Atkinson’s credit – never so tangled that you can’t or don’t want to know how it’s going to unravel.

About half to two-thirds of the way through, there’s like a eureka moment where this large cast and their motivations suddenly (in my head at least) find their place and it all becomes clear, but not to the point you’re not astonished at where the finale takes you. What has already been a good read suddenly becomes a great one as you race towards a resolution and finally get to see what role, if any, Brodie will play in this masterful, twisty and clever plot.

As always, the writing is sublime and the characters so wonderfully and realistically portrayed, they breathe life into the pages. Cannot wait for her next one.

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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham

I love it when a writer whose work you love never lets you down. Michael Robotham is one of those and with the first book in his new series, Good Girl, Bad Girl, featuring psychologist Cyrus Haven (who makes an appearance in one of the Joe McLoughlin books), he even ups the ante in terms of suspense, a cracking plot and flawed, marvellous characters you champion the entire way.

When a very troubled young woman, whose given the name Evie Cormac, applies to court to be released from the children’s home she’s been held in for the last six years after being discovered in a secret room in a house where a brutal murder happened, Cyrus is called in to assess her. Equal parts fascinated and wary of Evie who, it appears, possesses the uncanny ability to tell when a person is lying, Cyrus also knows he has to unlock her past in order to help her secure a future. But Evie, while tolerant of Cyrus, is not ready to talk about who she is or what she endured. Resilient yet vulnerable, damaged and damaging, clever and filled with self-loathing and yet a desire to be “normal”, Evie is not like anyone Cyrus (who has his own demons and tragic past) has met before.

When a case Cyrus is working on and Evie’s present collide, danger for both of them rears its head, placing both their lives on the line. Cyrus and Evie must not only rely on all their innate and learned skills to survive, but more importantly each other. Thing is, can these two wary souls let down their defences long enough?

Fast-paced, enthralling and at times, very suspenseful, and always clever, this is a great read. While at first I was disappointed it didn’t feature the beloved Joe, Cyrus is an engrossing character and, in Evie, I think Robotham has struck creative gold. While this novel resolves itself in one sense, in another, where both Cyrus and Evie are concerned, it raises far more questions than it answers setting the framework for an exciting new series. I for one cannot wait to see where Robotham takes these characters and thus, his readers.

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The Moor by L.J. Ross

I am so enjoying this series by L.J. Ross, featuring the dashing and dishy DCI Ryan (reminiscent of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley), his historian wife, sergeant Phillips and his partner, DI, Denise and their attempts to bring crime in Northumberland under control. It’s light, easy reading but without sacrificing good writing or steady plotting. Add to that the burgeoning attraction between Constables Lowerson and Yates and in this novel, a cold case which brings a circus and a young, cheeky waif into the gang’s sphere, and the stage – or Big Top – is set.

When 10-year-old Samantha O’Neill turns up on DCI Ryan’s doorstep one Sunday afternoon, claiming she’s had a returned memory of her mother being murdered, Ryan and his people take her very, very seriously. When they find a cold case and an unidentified body matching the description Samantha has given them, they pull out all stops to help the child they’re fast developing great affection for. But someone else is aware that Sam’s repressed memory has returned and though she’s being kept in a safe house, they’re searching for her, intending that her memories of that fateful afternoon will never completely return.

In many ways, this book (number 11 in the series) while a terrific addition to a fabulous series, felt like it’s main purpose was to introduce a new character to the regular cast and a potentially darker plotline that brings danger close to home – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Both were very well done and, certainly, the new character promises to be equal parts enchanting and frustrating while the other, more sinister storyline is sure to set hearts racing. My only concern there is why did have to be THAT character – especially when so much has already happened and the circumstances that made the threat a reality were brought about because of a rash (stupid) decision.

Still, I look forward to seeing where these storylines go and where Ryan and co will head next as well. I have grown very, very fond of these characters and this wonderful series.

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