Book Review – A SONG FOR THE DARK TIMES (2020) by Ian Rankin

A SONG FOR THE DARK TIMES (2020) ****
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 2020, 325pp
ISBN: 978-1-4091-7697-8
© John Rebus, Ltd., 2020
    Blurb: When his daughter Samantha calls in the dead of night, John Rebus knows it’s not good news. Her husband has been missing for two days. Rebus fears the worst – and knows from his lifetime in the police that his daughter will be the prime suspect. He wasn’t the best father – the job always came first – but now his daughter needs him more than ever. But is he going as a father or a detective? As he leaves at dawn to drive to the windswept coast – and a small town with big secrets – he wonders whether this might be the first time in his life where the truth is the one thing he doesn’t want to find…
      Comment: As has become common-place with the Rebus-in-retirement books, Rankin juggles two separate cases, in which there is hinted a connection. The first involves Rebus trying to clear his daughter’s name when her husband is found murdered, the second sees Siobhan Clark and Malcolm Fox investigating the murder of a socialite in Edinburgh. The connection is a land deal proposed for a golfing holiday site near the north west coastal village where Rebus’s daughter Samantha lives with her own young daughter. A number of other elements are woven into the story. Rebus has moved to a ground floor flat due to his respiratory condition; gangster Cafferty has a hold over the Assistant Chief Constable when he comes across photos of her husband in an affair. Cafferty is also dealing with the prospect of his empire coming to an end and the book closes with some uncertainty on this. The two central mysteries are played out in familiar fashion and offer nothing really new beyond the background of a  WWII POW camp that was being studied by Samantha’s husband. The real delight, as ever, is in the familiar characters and their interactions. Rebus is at his abrasive best as he tussles with the local police. Clark and Fox’s working relationship continues to be tainted by their mistrust of each other. Cafferty is portrayed as an increasingly lonely figure relying on his past reputation. The page count is relatively and refreshingly brief, leading to an efficiently told story. There is still more to be said in this series and I look forward greatly to see where Rankin takes his characters next.

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
A Song for the Dark Times (2020) ****

Book Review – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1957) by Ian Fleming

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1957) ****½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 356pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1957
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1957
Introduction by Tom Rob Smith (7pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57689-1

Blurb: A beautiful Soviet spy. A brand-new Spektor cipher machine. SMERSH has set an irresistible trap that threatens the entire Secret Service. In Fleming’s fifth 007 novel Bond finds himself enmeshed in a deadly game of cross and double cross.

Comment: This fifth novel in Fleming’s James Bond series sees the author flexing his literary muscles and experiment with structure. The result is his most satisfying book to this point. The story is split into two sections. The first deals with the development of SMERSH’s plot to discredit the British secret service through James Bond. It introduces the characters of Rosa Klebb, SMERSH’s head of operations, who is a loathsome manipulator; Red Grant, SMERSH’s assassin; Kronsteen, master chess player and key strategist; and Tatiana Romanova, the instrument of the Russian plot. This section takes up the first third of the book and painstakingly fleshes out each of the characters and their motivations. The second section deals with the execution of the Russian plot. Bond meets Darko Kerim, allied head of operations in Istanbul, and Kerim is the strongest and most likeable character in the book. The book really picks up from here, with the girl fight and shootout in the gypsy camp scene a highlight. Bond and Tania’s escape on the Orient Express builds in tension as the Russians and Grant close in. Then the final showdown between Bond and Klebb ends the book on a cliffhanger. There were rumours that Fleming had tired of his creation and was looking for a way out, fortunately that was not the case and Bond returned in DR. NO. The book was reported as one of President John F. Kennedy’s top 10, which kicked off the series’ popularity in the US. The 1963 film adaptation added elements, but stuck to Fleming’s core plot and characters and resulted in one of the strongest films in the series.

Book Review – GENESIS – 1967 TO 1975: THE PETER GABRIEL YEARS (2020) by Mario Giammetti

GENESIS – 1967 TO 1975: THE PETER GABRIEL YEARS (2020) ****½
by Mario Giammetti
This paperback edition published by Kingmaker Publishing, 2020, 252pp
First published in Italy by Giunti Editore, 2013
© Mario Giammetti, 2013/2020
ISBN: 978-1-913218-62-1

Blurb: The definitive biography of the early years of one the world’s greatest rock bands! The book contains numerous exclusive interviews with band members and with all the important personalities who were part of the story of Genesis between 1967 and 1975. Features a number photographs which have never been published previously, plus interviews carried out with individual members of Genesis during listen through of each of the band’s first six albums. Mario Giammetti is an Italian music journalist with over 30 years experience. He has written for numerous leading Italian music magazines. In 1991 he founded Dusk (www.dusk.it) the only printed magazine in the world dedicated to Genesis. He has written 14 books related to the world of Genesis. Genesis 1967 to 1975: The Peter Gabriel Years is his first book to be published in English.

Comment:  This is the English language release of Mario Giammetti’s biography/chronicle of the period of Genesis’ history when Peter Gabriel fronted the band. It covers the band’s transition from schoolboy songwriters at Charterhouse Public School to becoming one of the top progressive rock acts of the 1970s. For many older fans of the band this is the so-called “classic” period encompassing six studio albums and an extensive touring programme. Although billed as a “biography” the book largely focuses on the music. It draws extensively on interviews with each of the band members and their associates, conducted by the author and Mike Kaufman (the latter extended from those included in the 2006-8 remix box set Extras DVDs) over the period 2000 to 2015 – so there is a small amount of new material to update the Italian language version published seven years ago.  Giammetti’s book makes for a fascinating read and unearths a lot of new detail (to those unfamiliar with the Italian language) around the writing and recording of each of the band’s albums during this period. Three of the band members (Tony Banks, Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips) were also involved in listening sessions with the author on the albums, so were able to offer fresh perspectives on the material. For me (having recently completed my own book on the band’s output) this was the most interesting part of the book and there were a number of new details I discovered as a result. The book is well organised chronologically by album and tour and handsomely illustrated, with a number of rare photos. For a Genesis fan – particularly of that period in the band’s history – this is a must. It stands proudly alongside Armando Gallo’s classic I Know What I Like and the band’s own Chapter & Verse in its coverage and the insights it offers.  The book ends with the words “To be continued” and I eagerly look forward to part two of the story. I hope too that Giammetti’s other output on the band and its members gets the translation treatment on the back of this excellent book.

Book Review – WRONG LIGHT (2018) by Matt Coyle

WRONG LIGHT (2018) ***½
by Matt Coyle
This paperback edition published by Oceanview Publishing, 2018, 338pp
© Matt Coyle, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-60809-329-8

Blurb: Naomi Hendrix’s sexy voice hovering over the radio waves isn’t the only thing haunting the Southern California nights. A demented soul is stalking Naomi, hiding in the shadows of the night, waiting for the right moment to snatch her and fulfill a twisted fantasy. When Naomi’s radio station hires PI Rick Cahill to protect Naomi and track down the stalker, he discovers that Naomi is hiding secrets about her past that could help unmask the man. However, before Rick can extract the truth from Naomi, he is thrust into a missing person’s case–an abduction he may have unwittingly caused. The investigating detective questions Rick’s motives for getting involved and pressures him to stop meddling. While Rick pursues Naomi’s stalker and battles the police, evil ricochets from his own past and embroils Rick in a race to find the truth about an old nemesis. Is settling the score worth losing everything?

Comment:  This is the fifth book in Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series, but it is the first that I have read. It is a dark noir-ish novel which gives Private detective Cahill two unconnected cases to juggle – an unusual, but not unique, approach in a first-person PI novel. Coyle actually juggles the two stories pretty well, blending the action and key characters without confusing the reader. The primary case, concerning a female DJ being stalked is the more traditional, whilst the secondary case – involving the Russian Mafia and a hold they have over Cahill – refers back to events from previous books and readers would perhaps benefit in approaching this series from the beginning. That said, there is enough background provided to ensure you can also approach the book as a standalone. Cahill is a flawed hero and his manipulation of the few friends he has leaves him as something of a loner. The novel moves at a cracking pace and remains engaging throughout with many twists and turns – some that can be foreseen others that shock. As such the book challenges the reader at every turn. This can be both a positive and a negative in that it feels at times that Coyle is trying to be too clever and by doing so the reader can occasionally anticipate his next twist because they know not to take things at face value. The two plots run at different paces. The stalker plot line is almost text book mystery right up until its shocking conclusion. The Russian Mafia subsidiary plot line mixes the mystery element of the nature of the Russian Mob’s operation, in which they embroil Cahill, with action thriller elements of many a big screen crime thriller. Taken separately both would make for a very readable book. Blended together they at times make for an overly frenetic narrative that stretches credulity – not in the nature of the situations but in the way in which the police and FBI deal with them and Cahill seemingly can operate for days without much sleep. All said and done, I really enjoyed the book despite its over-ambition and look forward to seeing where Coyle takes Cahill next.

Book Review – DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) by Ian Fleming

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) ***½
by Ian Fleming
Diamonds Are Forever - Ian FlemingThis paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 309pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1956
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1956
Introduction by Giles Foden (13pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57688-4

Blurb: The Spangled Mob are no ordinary American gangsters. They prey on the addictions of the wealthy and treat the poor as collateral. Their ruthless desire for power and fierce brotherly loyalty make them deadly and invincible. James Bond must go deep undercover in his urgent new assignment: to destroy their millionaire masterminds, Jack and Seraffimo Spang. But the Spangs’ cruel influence is everywhere, from dusty African diamond mines to the frenzied gambling dens of Las Vegas. Can Bond find his men before his cover is blown?

Comment: This fourth novel in Fleming’s James Bond series is better than I remember. Whilst the plot is fairly basic in Bond’s assignment to link the pipeline of diamond smuggling from its source to distribution, it moves at a good pace and is never dull. The villains. the Spangled Mob, are merely violent gangsters controlling the gambling casinos in Las Vegas as well as the diamond operation. Their methods are basic. We learn a bit more about Bond through his interaction with Tiffany Case – a sympathetic character with a dark history. We also learn why Bond has never married and get confirmation of his loyalty to his service. The action set pieces are good – although this time the torture of Bond by Spang’s henchmen takes place “off-screen”. There is a good locomotive chase and the first finale on board the Queen Elizabeth liner is exciting. Whilst not in the series’ top drawer it is on a par with Live and Let Die as a fast-moving action thriller.

Book Review – AMOS FLAGG: SHOWDOWN (1969) by Clay Randall

AMOS FLAGG: SHOWDOWN (1969) ***½
by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams)
This paperback edition published by Cornonet Books, 13 July 1970, 144pp
ISBN: 0-340-12952-2
      Blurb: The new marshal’s problem is that he likes to kill people, and soon the town is crawling with fast-draw artists anxious to challenge the marshal’s growing reputation as a gunman. There’s still one man who stands between the marshal and the gunmen – and that’s Amos Flagg. The only question is, does Flagg want to save him?
      Comment: This is the sixth and final book in Clifton Adams’ (writing as Clay Randall) Amos Flagg Western series. It is a typical tale of confilct in a town where the experienced sheriff and the gung-ho town marshall are at odds with each other. Throw in a vengeful grieving widow and outlaws out to make a name for themselves and you have the recipe for a fast-moving and entertaining, if familiar, read. The writing is concise and the characters are colourful. Adams died at the age of 51 in 1971 having written numerous westerns and also a handful of excellent crime novels. He influenced authors such as Craig Johnson (creator of the Longmire series) and is gaining appreciation through a new readership.

Book Review – A GENESIS IN MY BED: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2020) by Steve Hackett

A GENESIS IN MY BED: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2020) ****
by Steve Hackett
This hardback edition published by Wymer Publishing, 2020, 167pp plus index)
© Stephen Hackett / Wymer Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-912782-38-3
      Marketing Blurb: The long overdue autobiography from guitar great and former member of Genesis, Steve Hackett. As with his music, Steve has written a highly detailed, entertaining and embracing tome that charts his life in full, but with a firm emphasis on his years with Genesis that saw the band’s meteoric rise to become one of the most successful British bands of all time. Steve talks candidly about his early life, his time with Genesis, and in particular his personal relationships with the other four band members, with great insight into the daily goings on of this major rock band. Naturally A Genesis In My Bed also regales stories of Steve’s career since leaving Genesis and the many different journeys that it has taken him on. With his flair for the creative, and a great deal of levity, A Genesis In My Bed is a riveting read. Indispensable for Genesis fans but also essential for general music lovers and avid readers of autobiographies full of heartfelt and emotive tales.
      Comment: The first thing you notice about Steve Hackett’s autobiography is the brief page count. This is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the read quick and concise but also sketches over details that dedicated fans may have wanted, notably on his later solo career. That said I found the book hugely enjoyable and after reading it felt, as a result, I knew much more about what makes Hackett tick – his insecurities in particular. His writing is literate and informative and full of anecdotes. The book is effectively split into three sections: Growing up and family life pre-Genesis; the Genesis years and his post-Genesis solo career. The first section gives much insight into the formation of Hackett’s personality. A shy youngster lacking in self-confidence, but with a natural musical ability, striving to find his niche. His ultimate link up with Genesis, via an interesting Melody Maker ad, is well known through band biographies.
Hackett’s time with the band highlights his initial reticence to assert himself, although he was instrumental in the band purchasing a Mellotron, which helped transform their sound. He grew in confidence once Gabriel had left the band – Hackett had recorded his first solo album, in the interim between The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and A Trick of the Tail. His newfound confidence through solo compositions became more apparent on Wind & Wuthering, but also sowed the seeds for his leaving Genesis when his intention to continue a solo career alongside the band was vetoed by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. His ultimate departure was swift, during the mixing of the live album Seconds Out. At the time Hackett let some of his frustrations out in subsequent press interviews. Here, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, he is more objective and sees how if he had been more patient he may well have been able to combine the two further down the road – as became apparent once Banks, Rutherford and Phil Collins launched their own solo careers only two or three years later. Hackett is very complimentary of his former bandmates and makes it clear they all get on well, despite occasional disagreements and insensitivities – notably the editing out of Hackett’s solo career from the band’s 2004 documentary Together and Apart.
The latter part of the book, covering Hackett’s post-Genesis solo career is the most sketchy and therefore least informative – although he candidly documents the stresses of managing his solo career as well as his post-punk struggles with the record companies and the music press. Hackett comes across as an immensely likeable bloke, whose desire to nurture talent and have a settled and supportive partner has been his driving force. His third wife Jo has been a keen supporter and soulmate. Hackett’s return to the Genesis archive to mix the band’s songs with his own solo output in his live set confirms he has come to terms with his inner self and is probably the happiest he has ever been. His final words, “I have finally found home,” confirm this. A pleasurable and heartwarming read.

Book Review – MOONRAKER (1955) by Ian Fleming

MOONRAKER  (1955) ****½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 325pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1955
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1955
Introduction by Susan Hill (20pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57687-7
Moonraker      Blurb: He’s a self-made millionaire, head of the Moonraker rocket programme and loved by the press. So why is Sir Hugo Drax cheating at cards? Bond has just five days to uncover the sinister truth behind a national hero, in Ian Fleming’s third 007 adventure.
      Comment: Anyone familiar with the 1979 film adaptation – the low point of Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond – should lay any preconceptions at the door. This is one of the very best James Bond novels. Unlike the first two in the series, Fleming’s third 007 adventure gives his lead character room to breathe and as a result, he becomes a more human hero. The first part of the book is the set-up and is almost routine in its playout – showing Bond’s life between missions. The introduction of Sir Hugo Drax, who is suspected of cheating at cards at M’s private club, sets the foundation for the remainder of the story. Drax is something of a celebrity figure and is respected for his development of an atomic deterrent in the ever-escalating cold war environment. The death of Drax’a security chief raises suspicions and Bond replaces him. Slowly he infiltrates Drax’s operation, run by a team of German technicians and supported by Drax’s personal assistant Gala Brand, who is, in fact, an undercover special branch officer. As Bond and Gala slowly unravel the reality around Drax’s test flight for his Moonraker rocket – echoes of WWII resentment and Russian coercion come into play. The final section of the book is taut, suspenseful and one of the best passages of writing in Fleming’s bibliography. Drax is one of Fleming’s best villains and Krebs a sinister henchman. Gala is an appealing heroine, who is brave and resourceful. The lonely life of a spy is described in Bond’s routine work and the ironic coda and his relationship with his boss, M, is explored to some degree. This set the template for more fantastical plots and charismatic villains and as such is highly recommended as a great example of what the series offered.

Book Review – LIVE AND LET DIE (1954)

LIVE AND LET DIE  (1954) ***½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2019, 303pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1954
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1954
ISBN: 978-0-099-57686-0
      Blurb: Mr Big is brutal, brilliant and feared worldwide. Protected by Voodoo forces and the psychic powers of his prisoner Solitaire, he is an invincible SMERSH operative at the head of a ruthless smuggling ring. James Bond’s new assignment will take him to the heart of the occult: to infiltrate this secret world and destroy Mr Big’s global network. From Harlem’s throbbing jazz joints to the shark-infested waters of Jamaica, enemy eyes watch Bond’s every move. He must tread carefully to avoid a nightmarish fate.
      Comment: Ian Fleming’s follow-up to his debut James Bond novel Casino Royale is a fast-paced and entertaining read. It is also a relic of its time and the text, although softened in this version, should be taken in that context in the way it deals with its largely black cast of characters. Bond is up against Mr. Big, who is smuggling sunken pirate treasure to help fund the Russian spy network SMERSH. Bolstered by its action set-pieces – notably as Bond and Felix Leiter penetrate Mr Big’s empire resulting in Leiter “disagreeing with something that ate him” and the tense finale where Bond and Solitaire are hauled over a corral reef. The book has three settings – New York, the Florida keys and Jamaica and is the first of the books to introduce a globe-hopping element. Bond is presented as a tough and single-minded agent with little time for sentiment. Mr. Big is an impressive, if two-dimensional, villain. Themes of voodoo permeate throughout the plot, but are not fully explored. Solitaire is a little bland and her supposed powers to see into the future are underplayed as a potentially interesting character dissolves into the typical captive woman yearning for Bond to free her. Fleming was still honing his craft at this stage and better stories and plots would follow, but it remains a good example of why the series became so popular.

Book Review – THE TWISTED THING (1966) by Mickey Spillane

THE TWISTED THING (1966) ****
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 178pp (524pp) with The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Snake (1964)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: This is some household. The kid is a genius, the father a scientist of international repute. Money is a problem. Not a shortage of money, but the opposite: too much. The sort of money that brings the envious and the scheming clustering like flies around offal: nieces, nephews, cousins … a family of mean minds and gross appetites. The staff has its peculiarities, too: the chauffeur is an ex-con; the governess formerly a featured act in strip clubs from New York to Miami; and the secretary has a well-developed taste in other women. Yes, it’s some household – and not all that welcoming of PI Mike Hammer, not when the kid has been kidnapped and everyone’s a suspect.
      Comment: This ninth Mike Hammer novel from the pen of Mickey Spillane seems to hark back to the noir mystery thrillers of the 40s and 50s. There’s a reason for that. This was in fact the second Mike Hammer book Spillane wrote (after I, the Jury – published in 1947). It had initially been rejected by Spillane’s publisher who was looking for something tougher, more violent, sexy and vengeance-driven after the success of the first book. So, Spillane obliged with My Gun is Quick and shelved The Twisted Thing for 18 years.  It’s easy to see why the book was initially passed as it tends to blend into the more traditional field that surrounded it at the time. That said the book is not without its moments of violence and sex. The main difference is Hammer is less driven by vengeance and his two-fisted ways of obtaining his leads and works more as a detective in the Chandler or MacDonald mode. Indeed a softer side to his character is shown in his attachment to the kidnapped boy. As such, the book is refreshing with its complex kidnap/murder plot built around a large dysfunctional family and has distinct echoes of some of the classics of the genre. Excepting one or two fanciful advancements of the plot, Spillane keeps the reader engaged throughout and his writing is often impressive as Spillane sticks with the tried and tested first-person narrative until its twist ending. The setting is mostly a small town in New York state, so the change of environment also serves to freshen up the formula. One of the best of the later published Mike Hammer novels, this is worth seeking out.