Book Review – BLUE LIGHTNING (2010) by Ann Cleeves

BLUE LIGHTNING (2010) ***
by Ann Cleeves
First published by Macmillan, 2010
This edition published by Pan Books, 2015, 374pp (357pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7446-9
includes 11-page preview of DEAD WATER.

Blurb: With the autumn storms raging, Fair Isle feels cut off from the rest of the world. Trapped, tension is high and tempers become frayed. Enough to drive someone to murder . . . A woman’s body is discovered at the renowned Fair Isles bird observatory, with feathers threaded through her hair. The islanders react with fear and anger. Detective Jimmy Perez has no support from the mainland and must investigate the old-fashioned way. He soon realizes that this is no crime of passion – but a murder of cold and calculated intention. There’s no way off the island until the storms abate – and so the killer is also trapped, just waiting for the opportunity to strike again.

The fourth book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series featuring detective Jimmy Perez is another intriguing and meticulously plotted murder mystery. The setting is ideal for an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit with a small cast of characters isolated at a bird observatory on the remote Fair Isle. Cleeves spends a lot of time rounding out her characters and their motives, which slows down the pace to a crawl at certain points. The writing is, however, well crafted giving a real sense of place. The final scenes produce a nightmare personal twist for Perez. and the denouement is a brave one for Cleeves as she leaves her lead character at a crossroads. Whilst the story would have benefited from some tighter editing, it remains a highly competent mystery thriller.

Book Review – UP: MY LIFE’S JOURNEY TO THE TOP OF EVEREST by Ben Fogle (2018)

UP: MY LIFE’S JOURNEY TO THE TOP OF EVEREST (2018) ****
by Ben Fogle (& Marina Fogle)
First published by William Collins, 2018, 270pp
ISBN: 978-0-00-831922-9

Blurb: In April 2018, seasoned adventurer Ben Fogle and Olympic cycling gold medallist Victoria Pendleton, along with mountaineer Kenton Cool, took on their most exhausting challenge yet – climbing Everest for the British Red Cross to highlight the environmental challenges mountains face. It would be harrowing and exhilarating in equal measure as they walked the fine line between life and death 8,000 metres above sea level. For Ben, the seven-week expedition into the death zone was to become the adventure of a lifetime, as well as a humbling and enlightening journey. For his wife Marina, holding the family together at home, it was an agonising wait for news. Together, they dedicated the experience to their son, Willem Fogle, stillborn at eight months. Cradling little Willem to say goodbye, Ben and Marina made a promise to live brightly. To embrace every day. To always smile. To be positive and to inspire. And from the depths of their grief and dedication, Ben’s Everest dream was born. Up, from here the only way was Up. Part memoir, part thrilling adventure, Ben and Marina’s account of his ascent to the roof of the world is told with their signature humour and warmth, as well as with profound compassion.

Ben Fogle’s book is part-journal and part-philosophical statement. Fogle’s crave for adventure stems from a childhood of insecurity and it is his approach to life and his willingness to challenge himself that shines through. Everest is both a physical and metaphorical mountain to summit and it is interesting to contrast the drive and ambition that takes Fogle on his journey against the come-down after he has achieved his goal, the latter covered all too briefly. Fogle eloquently makes the point that life needs to be a series of goals and challenges and not just an individual one. His positive outlook is mirrored by the book’s title. Look up rather than down, keep cheallnging yourself to get better, chase your dreams. Fogle’s writing is complemented by that of Marina, his wife who gives the perspective of the spouse and family left behind to worry, whilst her husband chases his dreams in the most dangerous of locations. Marina’s spirit and selflessness shines even more brightly than that of her husband and enables us to contrast the routine of everyday life with the bold adventure of the expedition. Fogle’s travelling companions were experienced climber Kenton Cool and Olympic cycling gold medallist Victoria Pendleton. Victoria’s struggles with altitude sickness on the trip are well documented and ultimately caused her to abort her climb. Fogle went on to fulfil his dream and reach the top and he vividly documents the struggles of doing so, outlining the chaos on the mountain as dozens of climbers from various expeditions scramble for position. Whilst Fogle may tend to over-play his philosophy on life at the expense of the drama of the climb, often repeating  anbd sometimes labouring the same point, his book remains a fascinating insight into why adventurers test themselves to the limit.

Book Review – LET IT BLEED (1995) by Ian Rankin

LET IT BLEED (1995) ****
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 1995
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 402pp (360pp)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-8359-5
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

Blurb: Struggling through another Edinburgh winter Rebus finds himself sucked into a web of intrigue that throws up more questions than answers. Was the Lord Provost’s daughter kidnapped or just another runaway? Why is a city councillor shredding documents that should have been waste paper years ago? And why on earth is Rebus invited to a clay pigeon shoot at the home of the Scottish Office’s Permanent Secretary? Sucked into the machine that is modern Scotland, Rebus confronts the fact that some of his enemies may be beyond justice…

Ian Rankin’s seventh Rebus novel see the writer in maximum cynicism mode as he hits his stride taking on politics, the establishment, corporate industry and corruption. It is a complex plot the cleverly weaves its many strands into a cohesive whole. Rebus is the voice of conscience throughout, but he himself is no saint – failing in his relationships with his partner and his daughter and descending into greater dependency on alcohol. His wits remain as sharp as ever and this is his most expansive investigation to date. That Rebus is a flawed and human character makes him all the more believable and easier to forgive those failings. Whilst BLACK AND BLUE may be seen as the point where all the elements come together in the series, beginning a golden run, LET IT BLEED acts as an excellent prelude. I now only have the thirteenth book, RESURRECTION MEN, to read to have completed the whole series.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992) ***½
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996) ****
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE (1964) by John D. MacDonald

THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE (1964) ***½
by John D. MacDonald
First published In Great Britain by Robert Hale, 1965
This edition published by Orion, 2002, 200pp (195pp)
ISBN: 0-75284-767-8

Image result for the deep blue goodbyeBlurb: Travis McGee is a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card game. He’s also a knight-errant who’s wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: He’ll help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep half. McGee isn’t particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to Cathy, a sweet backwoods girl who’s been tortured repeatedly by her manipulative ex-boyfriend Junior Allen? What Travis isn’t anticipating is just how many women Junior has torn apart and left in his wake. Enter Junior’s latest victim, Lois Atkinson. Frail and broken, Lois can barely get out of bed when Travis finds her, let alone keep herself alive. But Travis turns into Mother McGee, giving Lois new life as he looks for the ruthless man who steals women’s spirits and livelihoods. But he can’t guess how violent his quest is soon to become. He’ll learn the hard way that there must be casualties in this game of cat and mouse.

This is the first of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels and also the first of his books I have read. My only previous experience of Travis McGee being via the 1972 film Darker Than Amber, which was based on MacDonald’s seventh book in the series and I remember it being a pretty good movie. The Deep Blue Goodbye was first published in 1964 and in both title and the actions of its hero the book has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.  McGee takes it upon himself to take into his care a psychologically damaged woman dependant on alcohol and resolve to put things right. The opening chapters in which McGee lives in the house with Lois Atkinson are reminiscent of Philip Marlowe and his obligation to the writer Roger Wade in Chandler’s masterpiece. McGee, however, blows much more hot and cold in his temperament and has less of Marlowe’s world-weary cynicism.

The plot unfolds as McGee looks to trap his target, the sadistic Junior Allen. McGee is a hero looking to right wrongs and as such is quite traditional. He manages his own time and is in control of his own destiny as he picks and chooses who he decides to help. He balances his need for income with his moral obligations to his clients. His relationships with women in the book are largely manipulative and whilst the character grows close to Lois, he also maintains a detached emotional involvement. This makes McGee’s character more complex and also more interesting. The book’s finale is both exciting and surprising and, as was customary for the day, its relatively short page count makes for a quick and entertaining read. MacDonald wrote 21 Travis McGee novels and the book left me wanting to revisit the character to see how the series developed.

 

Book Review – STRIP JACK (1992) by Ian Rankin

STRIP JACK (1990) ***½
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 1992
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 304pp (279pp)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-8356-4
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

Blurb: Gregor Jack, MP, well-liked, young, married to the fiery Elizabeth – to the outside world a very public success story. But Jack’s carefully nurtured career plans take a tumble after a ‘mistake’ during a police raid on a notorious Edinburgh brothel. Then Elizabeth disappears, a couple of bodies float into view where they shouldn’t, and a lunatic speaks from his asylum. Initially, Rebus is sympathetic to the MP’s dilemma – who hasn’t occasionally succumbed to temptation? – but with the disappearance of Jack’s wife the glamour surrounding the popular young man begins to tarnish. Someone wants to strip Jack naked and Rebus wants to know why…

Ian Rankin’s fourth Rebus book sees the author maturing in his writing and the character of Rebus settling down into the one who would populate the rest of the series. The plot again is singular and Rankin delves into the world of politics as well as again exploring his favourite theme of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his characters. Whilst the mystery elements are fairly routine – a cast of suspects all with a motive – the real pleasure here is in Rebus’ determination and resilience to see the case through and the fact that he makes mistakes along the way makes the character all the more human. It would be four more books and five more years before the series came of age and stepped beyond its police procedural roots into more complex works of fiction, but the seeds are sown here.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992) ***½
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – HIDE AND SEEK (1990) by Ian Rankin

HIDE AND SEEK (1990) ***
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 1990
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 278pp (261pp)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-8354-0
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

Blurb: A junkie lies dead in an Edinburgh squat, spreadeagled, cross-like on the floor, between two burned-down candles, a five-pointed star daubed on the wall above. Just another dead addict – until John Rebus begins to chip away at the indifference, treachery, deceit and sleaze that lurks behind the facade of the Edinburgh familiar to tourists. Only Rebus seems to care about a death which looks more like a murder every day, about a seductive danger he can almost taste, appealing to the darkest corners of his mind…

Ian Rankin’s second Rebus book is an interesting read when reading out of sequence in the series. Rankin was still a relatively inexperienced novelist at this point, as he readily acknowledges in his own introduction to the book, and the Rebus we see here is not yet the fully formed version that we see in later books. Here we meet Superintendent ‘Farmer’ Watson for the first time, whilst Rebus enjoys G&T and wine rather than his pint of heavy and listens to jazz rather than rock. The mystery itself is interesting and sees Rankin begin to tackle social themes as well as have the newly promoted Rebus solve the case. The book is relatively short compared to the more layered later novels and resists the temptation to expand into sub-plots. In that respect, this is a tightly written police procedural but it would be a few more books before Rankin would really find his stride.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – RED BONES (2009) by Ann Cleeves

RED BONES (2009) ***½
by Ann Cleeves
First published by Macmillan, 2009
This edition published by Pan Books, 2015, 406pp (392pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7446-9
includes 12-page preview of BLUE LIGHTNING.

Blurb: When an elderly woman is shot in what appears to be a tragic accident, Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is called to investigate the mystery. The sparse landscape and the emptiness of the sea have bred a fierce and secretive people. As Jimmy looks to the islanders for answers, he finds instead two feuding families whose envy, greed and bitterness have lasted generations. Then there’s another murder and, as the spring weather shrouds the island in claustrophobic mists, Jimmy must dig up old secrets to stop a new killer from striking again…

The third book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series featuring detective Jimmy Perez is a slow-burning mystery. Cleeves takes great care in growing her characters and making them feel real and this is key to the readers’ investment in the mystery. Whilst this approach can often slow the pace in a book with a relatively small cast of suspects, it does help create a sense of place. Cleeves also has the knack of cleverly ratcheting up the tension without the reader noticing it and you can feel yourself being drawn in as the book progresses. Perez is a detective who may lack charisma but has integrity and a sense of moral justice on his side. Much time is given to his sidekick, the raw and naive Sandy Wilson, whose character grows significantly through the book. The result is a good old-fashioned mystery with all the elements present.

Book Review – THE FALLS (2001) by Ian Rankin

THE FALLS (2001) ****
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 2001
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 498pp (475pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4072-4759-5
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

The Falls (A Rebus Novel)Blurb: A student has gone missing in Edinburgh. She’s not just any student, though, but the daughter of well-to-do and influential bankers. There’s almost nothing to go on until DI John Rebus gets an unmistakable gut feeling that there’s more to this than just another runaway spaced out on unaccustomed freedom. Two leads emerge: a carved wooden doll in a toy coffin, found in the student’s home village, and an internet role-playing game. The ancient and the modern, brought together by uncomfortable circumstance…

The 12th book in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series is an intriguing mystery that confirmed Rankin’s position in the premier league of crime writers. Four years and four books on from the breakthrough Black and Blue, this is confidently written and demonstrates Rankin’s total mastery of his characters. He even manages to give Rebus a love interest in this story who is also integral to the plot, which adds an additional dimension. The book also sees Gill Templar’s promotion to Detective Chief Superintendent, creating a different boss/Rebus dynamic, given their involvement together earlier in the series. Rankin also gives a greater role to DC Siobhan Clark and highlights her inner turmoil at balancing career aspirations with her leaning toward Rebus’ maverick methods. Rankin also brings DC Grant Hood and DS Ellen Wylie more into the mix with a subplot surrounding their competitiveness in advancing their careers. The characterisations are given depth and motivation, which is explored to the full. Slimy journalist Steve Holly, however, is maybe a tad stereotypical.  At 475 pages, the novel may seem a little over-extended, but it allows the characters to develop and the intricacies of the plot to unfold at a steady rate. The book is never boring as even in its slow passages the writing and introspection are very strong. Only in the finale do we see Rankin fall into more conventional territory.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991)
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – OUTLAND (1981) by Alan Dean Foster

OUTLAND (1981) ***
by Alan Dean Foster (based on a screenplay by Peter Hyams)
Paperback published by Warner Books, March 1981. 272pp.
ISBN: 0-446-95829-8

35190Blurb: Here on Io — moon of Jupiter, hell in space — men mine ore to satisfy the needs of Earth. They are hard men, loners for whom the Company provides the necessities: beds, food, drink and women for hire. Now, in apparent suicide or in frenzied madness, the men are dying… To OUTLAND comes the new U.S. Marshal O’Neil, a man with a sense of duty so strong it drives him to ferret out evil, greed and murder regardless of the cost. If he must, he will forfeit love, livelihood — even life itself.

OUTLAND was effectively a Space Western movie written and directed by Peter Hyams that riffed on the plot of the classic Western HIGH NOON. The movie starred Sean Connery as the Marshal left to fight alone against a corrupt mine manager and the hitmen sent to kill him on a remote moon of Jupiter. Alan Dean Foster is an old hand at novelisations and he adapts Hyams’ screenplay very professionally, bringing additional depth to the main characters and pacing the narrative well. O’Neil’s inner-torment and outer-determination to be seen to do the right thing in tackling the drug smuggling operation despite the personal sacrifices he makes are the heart of the story and Foster balances this well with the unfolding plot. The interplay between O’Neil and his only real ally – a cynical female doctor – is enjoyable. A decent, if less than original, film gets a decent novelisation.

Book Review – ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) by Lawrence Osborne

ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) ***
by Lawrence Osborne
Hardback published by Hogarth, 2018. 250pp.
ISBN: 978-1-7810-9057-2

Image result for Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe NovelBlurb: The year is 1988. The place, Baja California. Private Investigator Philip Marlowe – now in his seventy-second year – has been living out his retirement in the terrace bar of the La Fonda hotel. Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready. When in saunter two men dressed like undertakers. With a case that has his name written all over it.  At last Marlowe is back where he belongs. His mission is to investigate Donald Zinn – supposedly drowned off his yacht, leaving a much younger and now very rich wife. Marlowe’s speciality. But is Zinn actually alive? Are the pair living off the spoils? 

This is the fourth attempt to continue Raymond Chandler’s legacy of private investigator Philip Marlowe. None of these works has come anywhere near to replicating the best of Chandler’s work. First, there were two books by Robert B. Parker – Poodle Springs (1989) and Perchance to Dream (1991) – the former completing an unfinished Chandler manuscript, the latter a disappointing sequel to Chandler’s first Marlowe novel,  The Big Sleep (1939). Then in 2014, John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) produced The Black-Eyed Blonde, which was a pretty good sequel to Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1953). Now we have Lawrence Osborne’s take on Marlowe with Only to Sleep. Osborne has taken the brave decision to write about an ageing Marlowe, 72-years old here. This gives him the opportunity to introduce even more world-weariness into the character. A physically spent force, Marlowe now needs a cane to help him get around. Coaxed out of retirement to investigate a suspicious insurance claim, Marlowe goes to Mexico to find the truth. The book has a slow, deliberate pace which allows Osborne to share Marlowe’s anachronistic view of the world. However, his observations are merely those of a tired old man and lack the bite of his younger self. That may have been Osborne’s intention, to show how age has dulled Marlowe’s caustic cynicism. But much of the charm of Chandler’s creation is lost in the process. So whilst, as per convention, the story is written in the first person from Marlowe’s point of view, it doesn’t feel like this is the same man that inhabited Chandler’s novels  – or even those of Parker and Black. There is little of the biting wit we expect. The mystery itself is less a mystery and more a manhunt. There is also nothing in the unravelling of the plot elements that will surprise the reader. Osborne does, however, capture the hot, sleazy atmosphere of Mexico in the 1980s, drawing on his own experiences. Taken as a detective story, the writing is good and mercifully the page count is traditionally light and we are left with a competent detective novel, for which the only real distinction is its use of an iconic name to sell it.