Book Review: Night School, by Lee Child

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_school“In the morning they gave him a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.”

Night School is Lee Child’s twenty-first novel in the Jack Reacher collection. (It’s debatable about referring to the Reacher books as a series, as they’re not serial in Jack’s timeline. On Mr Child’s website On Mr Child’s website you will find  Jack’s chronological order for reading the titles, below the list of the titles in order of publication.) It is set in 1999. If Mr Child’s wanted to keep Jack Reacher fans happy, then this – his twenty-first Reacher book in the growing collection – has certainly achieved its purpose.

In Night School, Jack is made invisible by sending him to training school – where he finds two other ‘students’. All are invisible to personnel in the Military Police, the FBI and the CIA. The three agents are to work a clandestine investigation into all possible threats, reporting only to the National Security Advisor to the President, through his senior deputy Dr. Marian Sinclair who briefs them: An Iranian (a double agent) living with three Saudis in a safe house in Hamburg, has reported a message carried by a courier “The American wants one hundred million dollars”. Their job: to learn what is being offered, worth that price. There are two rules: Rule number two: talk to no one – except Sinclair. Rule number one: do not burn the Iranian asset. Reacher brings in Sergeant Frances Neagley, and heads to Hamburg to find out what they can.

Soon after arriving, they are called back to McLean, where they are briefed on a possible product – a Trojan virus has just appeared on the black market: it can override the patch coding for ensuring computer systems correctly handle the millennium clock change – the Y2K threat – and stop computer clocks at any moment. The team’s focus now is to track down who could be arranging that Trojan’s sale. Who more likely than a geek? And a convention of coders was held in Hamburg at the time of the message being reported. The team sift through records of Americans attending the convention, turning up one ex-pat American living in Hamburg. News comes in of a Hamburg police report from a witness to an agitated meeting between an American and a “middle-eastern” man. Tracking movements of American military moves, Reacher & Neagley discover three serving in Germany have gone AWOL – one for four months. Reacher & Neagley are ordered back to Hamburg, with pics of all american geeks for that witness to id.

The investigation continues, with Child giving snippets of the actions of other parties in the plot, building up the complexity of the case, and allowing readers to visualise locations and character, and foresee possible events – yet there are still surprises. Action scenes are defined crisply, with realistically timed reading pace matched with movement. Threats on the side build tension, and the engrossed reader will surmise the worst scenario possible; resist the urge.

All in all, a satisfying read, from the opening to the resolution. Reacher fans and new readers alike will become engrossed in this book, being released globally on November 7.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Night School
by Lee Child
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN: 9780593073902

Book Review: Fellside, by M R Carey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fellsideFellside is a prison, a correctional facility for women to be precise, where three thousand women ‘form a community committed to a practical ideal of rehabilitation’. Sounds idyllic. Not. A women’s prison is not a place that most people get to see the inside of, but we sure get plenty of insight from programmes like Bad Girls, Orange is the New Black, and Wentworth. Really tough women, young and old, fighting to survive. Fellside is no different.

There have been a number of best-selling novels in the last few years which have as their central premise a young woman who has suffered memory loss. Jess Moulson is yet another young woman in the unfortunate position of having her life dramatically affected by amnesia.

The story opens with Jess regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, handcuffed to the bed, being treated for serious burns, smoke inhalation. Gradually, she remembers that she was involved in a fire in her flat that led to the death of a ten-year-old boy who lived in the flat upstairs. Jess is a drug addict and has vague recollection that she set the fire for reasons that she can’t quite recall. By page 25 she has been found guilty of murder, the subject of the most awful press coverage, and sentenced to Fellside. Her court-appointed lawyer is doubtful that the full and factual story has come out but can’t get Jess to see sense, her guilt at the death of young Alex completely overwhelming her.

So life in prison begins, and it’s not a bed of roses. Now, I am not a fan of supernatural or fantasy fiction, I really just do not get it. But very cleverly the author who, under a pen name has written for Marvel comics and writes his own graphic fiction, introduces what can only be called a ghost character – a young boy who comes to Jess in her sleep, in her dreams, taking her with him to his world. She is convinced this is the spirit of Alex, and gradually realises that he is helping her to see what really happened the night of the fire. And so the mystery of Alex’s death begins to be solved.

But it is definitely creepy, weird and unsettling. At the same time as Jess is moving between the real world and the spirit world, she has to adapt to prison life in all its ruthlessness, cruelty, bent prison officers, and survival of the fittest code. It is pretty grim. What was interesting and did help to soften the brutality was the back stories of the prisoners and how they came to be in Fellside, including Jess’s own story. As awful as they all are, terrible things happened to the women that led them to prison, so it is hardly surprising the terror continues.

At nearly 500 pages, already one can see that there is lot going on in this novel. It is tricky to define what sort of novel it is – a psychological thriller? Murder mystery? Supernatural? Fantasy? Horror? At times it does wobble, and for me, I did lose my way with all the wanderings Jess and Alex’s spirit do in the pursuit of justice. But living in such a prison environment, wouldn’t you too want to escape to inside your head?

If you get past all the spooky action, then this is actually quite a riveting story. Life in the prison is graphically depicted, all the characters are very well drawn with great depth, there are lots of twists in the plot and surprises. And in the end, justice is served.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Fellside
by M.R. Carey
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356503592

Book Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_firemanThe world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. A highly contagious bacteria is spreading across the planet, infecting millions of people in its wake. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or “Dragonscale” as people have taken to calling it, marks out its victims with beautiful decorative black and gold markings across their skin – and a propensity to burst into flame. And America is burning. Cities have been destroyed, millions have died. The sick are being hunted and executed by the healthy, led by The Marlboro Man and his Cremation Crew.

Harper is a nurse. Or at least, she was a nurse until her hospital burned down, killing hundreds of infected patients. Now she is herself infected with the disease – and pregnant. On the run for her life, and that of her unborn baby, Harper seeks refuge at a secret commune with fellow Dragonscale sufferers. They think they have found a way to live in harmony with their deadly disease – provided they are able to remain hidden from the quarantine squads. Among the group is the Fireman, an enigmatic madman who has taught himself how to wield his internal fire as a weapon.

I confess I am not a fan of horror or science fiction. This book was well out of my usual comfort zone. However, I was intrigued by the premise – and made all the more curious when I discovered that the author Joe Hill is actually Joe Hillstrom King, son of the legendary Stephen King. I suspected, rightly, that I was in for a good read. Joe has inherited his father’s gift for storytelling.

This is a tense and action-packed book. “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” Even when I wasn’t reading it, I felt an ominous sense of dread and anxiety. This is a book that follows you. Even in its bleak moments though, there is levity. I really enjoyed the many pop culture references and subtle jokes: the mentions of voting for Donald Trump, the frequent references to Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the mentions in passing about the fate of various celebrities infected with Dragonscale (RIP George Clooney). This is a book that spans many genres without fitting neatly into any. It is part science fiction, part horror, part dystopian drama, part romance. In short, something for everyone.

It was no surprise to read in the author’s acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book that he has sold the film rights to the book. This is a story crying out to be on the big screen. The beautiful horror of the Dragonscale etching its victims in a pulsing gold pattern of swirls and curls will be incredible on a movie screen. Read the book before you see the movie.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Fireman
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9780575130722

Book Review: Predator, by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_predatorWilbur Smith continues the story of Hector Cross, the ex-SAS officer we have met in two previous novels. Cross lost his wife to a killer he has tracked, found and returned to the United States. The book starts with Cross awaiting the news of the death of Johnny Congo, the killer. He has been given the death penalty and all is secure for this to take place. The corruption and complexities of Congo’s contacts are detailed as we await justice.

This is a fast-paced book, swinging from the African oilfields to Alaska as we follow Cross in his role as an oilfield industry Security chief. There is a little romance, fatherhood as Hector Cross now has a young daughter to care for, and plenty of uncertainty. The baddies are very bad, the goodies are flawed, but generally try to do the best they can.

At times, I was little bogged down in detail as the four different stories played out on different continents with associated groups of friends or foes. Trying to sustain the different characters and settings, while keeping the pace up, seemed to present a real challenge. Eventually, it all comes together in a storm on the high seas.

As always, fans of Wilbur Smith will not be disappointed. You will have to read it for yourself to see if Hector Cross will live to tell another tale.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Predator
by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752814

Book Review: No Mortal Thing, by Gerald Seymour

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_no_mortal_thingWhen a young Englishman on secondment to a Berlin bank witnesses a violent assault on a woman, he does what most of us would do – intervene and try to stop it. For Jago Browne, that sets in motion a chain of events that will test the mild-mannered banker and put his life – and the lives of many others – in danger.

The man who committed the assault is Marcantonio, grandson of Ndrangheta crime boss Bernardo Cancello. In Berlin learning how to channel the money his family makes from crime into legitimate businesses, he can’t resist demonstrating his power by earning a little on the side. Little does he know that his run-in with Jago will have devastating consequences for his whole family.

After reporting the assault to the police and realising no action will be taken, Jago takes matters into his own hands. Instead of going back to his safe job at the bank, he follows Marcantonio to Italy with the intention of teaching him a lesson. Helped by Consolata, a woman who hates the criminal gangs as much as he does, Jago ends up hiding in a cave on a hillside above the Cancello home. He has no idea there are two undercover police officers (Fabio and Ciccio) nearby and that his presence could sabotage a long-running surveillance operation to flush out Bernardo. What is Jago there for? Will he succeed where trained professionals have so far failed?

As you would expect from a book about a Mafia-style family, there are a number of violent deaths. Some historic deaths still haunt those involved years later, including a priest who shares a dark secret with Bernardo that he can’t live with any longer.

This book has a huge cast of characters and for that reason the first hundred or so pages involved a lot of flicking back to work out who the different names belonged to and how they fitted in. In addition to the various members of Bernardo’s family and inner circle, there are small-time English gangsters, undercover agents, a police prosecutor, and officers from several different countries. Every day they all live with the danger of discovery – but who will be the first to be exposed? Jago? Fabio and Ciccio? Bernardo? Or someone else?

The pace picked up about halfway through the book and the plot developed a few unexpected twists and turns that kept me eagerly turning the pages. However I have to admit I found the last chapter unsatisfying. Several loose ends and a final twist that I don’t think anyone would have seen coming left me a little disappointed with No Mortal Thing.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

No Mortal Thing
by Gerald Seymour
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444758641

Book Review: Ashley Bell, by Dean Koontz

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cv_ashley_bellDean Koontz is one of the world’s most prolific authors, and unlike many of the other prolific writers, he does not make use of other authors to continue his manuscripts. It is somewhat understandable, therefore, that one might discover something of a formula to his tales.

When reading Dean Koontz, one can normally expect a fast-paced, thrilling adventure, generally with the main character (and occasionally the main character’s potential love interest) having to run for their life from some dangerous monster/cult/person with an almost uncanny way of tracking them down wherever they go. Generally there is a golden retriever, or canine of another sort, involved. He also has the trademark cast of quirky, sometimes downright oddball, characters.

Ashley Bell contains many of these standard Koontz-tropes. It has the bold female lead, Bibi Blair, who won’t let anything get her down and who will take on any challenge life has to offer her – including a rare and fatal rare brain tumour. It has a golden retriever, Olaf, although in this case, he has been dead for 6 years. It has a dangerous cult leader in the form of a Neo-Nazi, Hitler-wannabe and murderer. And, yes, there is the love interest – in this case, Paxton, who is doing his military duty out in the field. To save herself, Bibi must find, and rescue, a girl by the name of Ashley Bell. But who is Ashley Bell?

Bibi undergoes a whirlwind, madcap journey, filled with strange coincidences and violent murders. She is hunted at every corner, and there seems nowhere will provide refuge. As tensions increase and events – and acquaintances – conspire around her, a harrowing truth will be revealed – something extraordinary and forgotten.

Ashley Bell is longer than the standard Koontz tale, more of a tome than a quick weekend read. The prose is eloquent and flowery – perhaps reflecting Bibi Blair’s career as an author. It has about it something of the familiar, and a little of the fresh and new.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Ashley Bell
by Dean Koontz
Published by Harper Collins NZ
ISBN 9780732298654

NB: The paperback of Ashley Bell is due out in June 2016.

Book Review: Dictator, by Robert Harris

cv_dictatorAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This was a new genre for me, and it was the third in a series – something that wasn’t clearly indicated on the outside of the book. If I’d realised, I would have sought to read Imperium and Lustrum first. However, the lack of background for the story allowed me to approach it with my mind open – seeing its merits free of prejudice.

Dictator is about Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the story is told by Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, a former slave, who is given freedom in Dictator, but chooses to remain at Cicero’s side while he notes Cicero’s days and the events and relationships therein. Cicero himself is writing his philosophies of life, political analysis and recording his interpretations of previous scholars’ works.

Tiro is not an academic, nor a scholar. He is a common man, with both the skill of writing (being an inventor of a type of shorthand) and a steadfast loyalty to his master, who pursues the idealism of a truly republican Rome in the face of treachery, deceit, war, espionage and duplicity. Like any human, Cicero has his failings, and Tiro’s recordings of these are poignant, despairing of many of Cicero’s decisions.

In the opening scenes of Dictator (Exile, 58 BC to 47 BC)– Cicero is fleeing Rome after tribune Clodius Pulcher has banished him to beyond four hundred miles from Rome, forcing him to find refuge across the Adriatic Sea. In the meantime, Caesar (Gaius Julius), having appointed Clodius as tribune, has left Rome to wage war in Gaul.

Cicero continuously has to move from one position to another as members of the government are manipulated and swayed from supporting Cicero to decrying him for his views. The public are just as easily manipulated, and they cannot rest easy for long anywhere. Exile ends with Caesar lifting any restrictions on Cicero.

The second part –(Redux, 47 BC to 43 BC)–follows Cicero’s return to Rome, and his waxing and waning popularity and influence through the final days of Caesar (Gaius Julius), and his replacement by his nephew Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar). Tiro leaves Cicero’s service, then rejoins him in his new glory days, and remains with him as he discovers Octavian’s duplicity and deceit.

As Cicero’s popularity waxes and wanes, Tiro is with him or thinking of him. Tiro records all the events which enfold back in Rome, letters to and from Cicero, Cicero’s betrayal, his rise to sit as ruler of Rome, war against and the defeat of Mark Antony…Cicero’s last speech in the forum stated:

“I do not say that the younger Caesar is like the elder. But I do say that if we make him consul, and in effect give him control of all our forces, then we will betray the very principle for which we fight: the principle that drew me back to Rome when I was on the point of sailing to Greece – that the Roman Republic, with its divisions of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s greatest creation, and I would sooner lie choking in my own blood upon the ground than betray the principle on which all this stands – that is, first and last, the rule of law.”

A worthwhile read for those who enjoy political intrigue and period writing.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Dictator
by Robert Harris
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN: 9780091799502