Cannonball Read 7, Book 4: In the Morning, I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

17187220I may have mentioned before that McKinty was something of a wild card discovery. I read the first in the Sean Duffy series, The Cold Cold Ground, purely as there was a gay element to it (shallow, moi?) and very much enjoyed it. So here we are at the third entry into the series, which sees McKinty essentially using the framework of the IRA bombing of the Brighton Tory Party Conference in 1984 to write about something that he is clearly more fascinated with: a locked room mystery.

Dermott McCann has escaped from the Maze prison. Duffy was friends with him in school, so is brought back from his disgraced exile he gets himself into in the opening pages to track him down. He hits brick wall after brick wall until McCann’s former mother-in-law contacts him and offers him a trade. Her youngest daughter, Lizzie, died a few years back and the death was ruled accidental. Mary Fitzgerald is convinced otherwise and tells Duffy that she knows where McCann is and if he can prove Lizzie was murdered and hand over the killer, she’ll reveal McCann’s location to him.

And so here we are at the real meat of the story, the locked room. Lizzie died in a pub locked from the inside and nobody else was there. Duffy takes his time to be convinced that Mary has any basis for her theory other than grief, but keeps plugging away as it’s his only lead to find McCann. That Lizzie was indeed murdered is not a spoiler (it would be a massive cheaty load of nonsense if she really DID die in an accident) and McKinty’s freewheeling storytelling style draws you in to the mystery very well. The machinations of living in 80’s Ireland are also fascinating, but some of them are mentioned far too often. I got to the point where I REALLY didn’t need to be told Duffy was checking under his car for bombs.

The end section, dealing with the tracking down of McCann and the realisation of where the bomb has been placed makes for some very gripping and occasionally unpleasant reading too. And while the epilogue may overegg the pudding a touch, it’s still good to know that plans to make this a trilogy were abandoned and a forth Duffy instalment was published earlier this year.

Cannonball 7, Book 3: Dying Light by Stuart MacBride

12735048Year of Crime, Book 3

This is the 2nd book in the DS Logan McRae series. The first one I read prior to being a Cannonball Reader, but to summarise, it’s a grim, bleak and cold book set in Aberdeen and dealing with the gruesome murder of children. Fun times. The rest of the series ended up as a Kindle Daily Deal and so here we are. The second book opens with McRae disgraced by a botched operation which ended with a policeman on life support. Assigned to the “Screw Up Squad”, McRae has to work his way back out.

The cases which McRae sees as his opportunity to return back to his former glory start with the murder of prostitutes and later a serial arson case. Also thrown in is a missing persons case which of course ends up being not all that it seems. Or more than it seems…..

MacBride really doesn’t shy away from unpleasant scenes. If you’re tender of heart and stomach, he is not the writer for you. A journalist, poor Colin Miller, finds himself on the wrong end of some truly gruesome torture that made even my cast iron stomach lurch. And they’re all the more difficult to read because the characters are so well drawn and relatable and poor Colin seems like such a nice chap. Some characters aren’t quite so finely tuned and the broad caricature of McRae’s inept boss is a little hard to swallow.

The tying up of all the plot strands is also very well done. But unless I missed it, there is one arson murder which didn’t fit with the end explanation and the book seems to just stop rather than properly end. It’ll be interesting to see if that is picked back up in the next book or not. Certainly, the gruff and likeable McRae is an interesting enough guy to keep me reading, so watch this space.

Cannonball Read 7, Book 2: Agatha Raisin & The Deadly Dance by M.C. Beaton

9781849011488Year of Crime Book 2

So, here we are. 2015 will be the year I finally burn through the rest of the Agatha Raisin books, which have been sitting on my Kindle for a year. The self-imposed Year of Crime (Reading) should sort that right out. And following the entertaining but hugely miscast TV adaptation of the first book, my interest in all things Raisin has been very much renewed.

So, after several years of having her retirement disrupted by dead bodies popping up and then solving the murder, Agatha has finally decided to come out of retirement and open her own private detective agency. And even more refreshing, Agatha’s new neighbour is a retired lady, not some silver fox for her to coo over and fall in love with. And when Agatha hires her as her secretary, all hell eventually breaks loose.

See, the dance of the title, and the central murder story, are FAR less interesting than the sub plot involving Secretary Emma and her increasingly psycho fixations and mental behaviour. Which isn’t to say the central story is bad, it isn’t. In fact, it’s probably one of the more satisfying ones Beaton has come up with in a long while. It is just overshadowed by Mental Emma.

The decision to give Raisin her own agency has given the series a new lease of life and come as a welcome change. It was the best thing Beaton could have done. It’s just a shame it’s taken fifteen books to get there, when really it could have been done in five. If you’re intrigued enough to start reading Raisin, but the thought of the series being SO long makes you break out in hives, then start here. You’ll pick it all up just fine.

Cannonball Read 7, Book 1: A Tap at the Window by Linwood Barclay

18681902Year of Crime Book 1

As we all know, Linwood and I, we go back a bit. Lately, things have been a  little rocky between us, with a duff novel followed up by an absolute rip roaring one. So when it came to this one, I was all “which camp will it fall into?” As it turns out, it fell smack dab between those two stools.

Our protagonist hero is Cal Weaver, a private investigator whose life is looking pretty bleak. His marriage is failing following the drug related accidental death of his teenage son. One night, he picks up a school friend of his dead son’s outside a bar and that seemingly innocuous event ends up sending his life into even more disarray. He is pulled into a murky plot involving police corruption and murder.

It’s an intriguing, interesting and fairly layered plot and Cal is a sympathetic protagonist that a reader can really get behind. His obsession with finding out who supplied the drugs which ended up in his son’s system the night he died is an understandable one, and it’s not a spoiler to say that said plot strand will end up intertwining with all the rest. A big issue I had with the book though is that the rest of the strands are all so broadly drawn and full of caricatures that I found them a little hard to swallow.

Clunky elements or not, Barclay is still a writer worth reading and while I’d put a huge majority of the endgame together before we got there, there were some stings in the tail I didn’t see coming. All in all, this is by no means a failure, but I have enjoyed other books of his a lot more.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 58: Agatha Raisin & The Haunted House by MC Beaton

9781849011471The other day, I looked at my “Already on the Kindle” shelf over on Goodreads and I thought to myself “you know, I have a LOT of crime books here. Like a LOT”. So I decided, there and then, to make 2015 my Year of Crime. While I’m not going to devote myself solely to reading crime novels, they will make up the majority of my Cannonball 7 input. The plan originally was to end Cannonball 6 with Station Eleven, but it was so good I burned through it in record time and was left with a bit more time than I thought. So I am kickstarting the Year of Crime a bit early with the 14th (yes really) entry into the tireless Agatha Raisin series.

So here we are again. Back on familiar territory with our Agatha. They have made a TV movie out of the first book in the series, which aired here on Boxing Day. I have been wondering why on earth they didn’t make a Midsomer Murders style show out of the books years ago, and finally, my wishes have possibly been answered. That Raisin, a stout but sexy mid-fifties headstrong woman with a cut glass accent to hide her Birmingham upbringing is being played by someone ten years too young and 100% too Scottish is vexing, but hey ho. In my mind, she’s always been Frances Barber, and that is how she will stay. If they make more and don’t cast Tom Hollander as Charles Fraith, then I give up.

Anyway, I digress. So Agatha is once again bored and once again fawning over her handsome new neighbour and once again getting herself caught up in a murder mystery. There is not one single millimetre of new territory being explored here, but then you don’t read these books for them to re-invent the wheel. Amusing pop culture references to Oprah Winfrey and Lolita aside, Beaton is still setting feminism back decades while seemingly thinking she’s advancing it. Her only true friend Bill Wong notes that she’s of a generation who can’t help but fall in love with every handsome man they meet, or something along those lines. First of all, bullshit. Second of all, it does NOT stack up, and never has that someone as forthright and brittle as Agatha would turn into some awful mewling fool every time someone vaguely handsome walks within 100 yards of her and has always been my biggest bugbear of the books.

The identity of the murderer won’t tax your brain, and the whole thing with the haunted house is very silly. It also gets bogged down with some heavy plodding work about Roundheads and Cavaliers and some comedy amateur dramatics. All in all, this is a perfectly acceptable entry into the series, and if you’ve read the previous thirteen books, there’s nothing new I (or indeed MC Beaton) can tell you. However, my other bugbear has at last been addressed. The book ends with Agatha turning down an offer of work from her ex-colleague because she’s going to open her own detective agency. Thank heavens for that.

And that’s it for Cannonball Read 6 and 2014. Cannonball Read 7 is on the horizon so stay tuned. And in the meantime, check out everyone else on Cannonball Read. Use the links to buy any books you fancy and consider joining in next year too, why not? All the money the site raises goes to cancer charities, so it’s a win/win.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 53: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

21840310This should have been my Cannonball. One of the joys of becoming a Cannonball Reader and starting this blog has been occasionally managing to get my hands on an advance reading copy of an upcoming novel. And this one, which is published mid January 2015, is a real treat. It’s being touted as the next Gone Girl and the first must read book of 2015. SJ Watson, who made a huge splash with his own debut novel a few years back, is quoted on the cover. And for once, the book lives up to the hype.

 

To everyone else in this carriage I must look normal; I’m doing exactly what they do: commuting to work, making appointments, ticking things off lists.

Just goes to show.”

Rachel takes the same train to work every day. And every day, the train stops at a red signal where Rachel can see into the house of a seemingly perfect couple. She observes them doing nauseating Perfect Couple things and she creates names and narratives for them in her mind. Then one day, Rachel sees something she shouldn’t and when one half of said Perfect Couple is then reported missing, Rachel is pulled into a mystery, one that becomes more dangerous with every turn. And Rachel has secrets of her own….

Hawkins clearly owes a debt to Hitchcock and to Christie with the set up of her debut. And with a central character who can’t recall a pivotal event along with a shady member of the medical profession who may or may not be involved, it also owes a slight debt to SJ Watson. And I was reminded of the long forgotten 80s Jane Fonda film, The Morning After. So that’s a lot of influences and homages, but Hawkins uses all of that as a framework to hang a very identifiable character on. Rachel is wholly three dimensional, deeply flawed, hugely frustrating, but you want her to succeed in finding out what happened to her Perfect Couple as much as you want to smack her upside the head and shout “GET A GRIP, LADY”.

Hawkins has written what can only really be described as an accomplished debut. It pulls you in right from the start and she handles the shift in narrative voices very well. They’re all easily distinguished (and if any reader doesn’t want to knife the awful smug new mother who pops up, then more power to you) and well crafted. I couldn’t put it down and burned through it in a matter of days. I had a couple of issues with the ending. Having set everything up so meticulously, Hawkins does make a bit of a mess when she knocks it all down. But the mess isn’t so awful that you can’t forgive it. It’s more a new puppy peeing on the rug than your awful ex spilling a glass of red wine on your cream carpet.

Essentially, it’s a great book and if you love twisty little thrillers, then 2015 is going to start very well for you.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 50: Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly

18104711I love a good thriller. Anyone who’s been reading my reviews since I started Cannonballing will have noticed that I’m a bit partial to a Sophie Hannah here, a Val McDermid there. So this much talked about debut from Paula Daly, with its intriguing tagline of “Your friend’s child is missing. It’s your fault” seemed right up my street. So it’s a shame it ended up leaving me flat.

Our put upon heroine is Lisa Kallisto. Living in the quiet Lake District, she’s a working mother of three kids, so she’s a bit pushed busywise, is Lisa. Her best friend is posh Kate, who’s married to well to do Guy. Their children are besties with Lisa’s children. When Lisa takes her eye off the ball over a planned sleepover at her house with her teenage daughter Sally and Kate’s daughter Lucinda, then Lucinda vanishes, leaving Lisa held responsible, wracked with guilt and determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened. Lucinda isn’t the first girl in the area to go missing though, and when the first girl turns up stripped naked and shellshocked by her ordeal, Lisa goes into a desperate tailspin as she races against the clock to find Lucinda.

See how that should be quite gripping? But Daly is so hellbent on trying to show us how Lisa’s life is beset with domestic normality and working class drudgery, that whole swathes of the book are devoted to banging on about her busy life and are not that interesting. Once we get into the investigation, alternate chapters go to DC Joanna Aspinall, told in the 3rd  person and again, tons of time given over to her awkward living arrangements and her pursuit of a breast reduction. It makes for fully rounded characters, yes. It also makes for some dull reading in what is supposed to be a thriller.

I would forgive that amount of extraneous faffery if the story being told was a cracking one, but this ended up falling short. All the clues as to what’s happened to Lucinda are uncovered by chance and coincidence. The mystery behind the other girls who are disappearing and then showing back up naked and abused is resolved by a tip off from the public. And when the full unpleasant truth as to where Lucinda went and why is unravelled, it’s both so lame and far-fetched as to cause much rolling of eyes and comments of “bitch, please” from the reader. Disappointing. But enough glimmers of talent shone through that I’d be willing to give her next book a try. Let’s see how it goes.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 46: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

18925235Now, as the blog title tells you, I really do read a lot. But it’s an odd gap in my book life that I haven’t read very many Agatha Christie novels. Those I have read, I read when I was in my teens and don’t really remember them anyway. So I decided to address this and read all the Poirot and Marple books, as well as her most famous stand alone novels like And Then There Were None. So what better place to start than at the beginning of the Poirots, with his introduction in The Mysterious Affair at Styles?

Well, like all beginnings of a series, it’s a slight little thing. Narrated by Captain Hastings, who has encountered Poirot in a professional capacity prior to the start of the novel. He’s staying at Styles and one night, the lady of the house, Emily Inglethorpe, is fatally poisoned. Handily enough, Poirot is staying in the village and knows the Inglethorpes well. Hastings asks him to investigate and naturally he agrees.

This is a book which can be enjoyed on many levels. There are many occasions where you can snigger behind your hand at the unintentional double entendre (people “ejaculate in surprise” more than once, for example). You can read it as an unrequited love story between Hastings and Poirot to rival that of Smithers and Mr Burns. You can read it as the first instalment of a sociopathic Belgian who goes around killing people and then getting away with it by framing someone else and blinding everyone else with the science of his “little grey cells”. Or you can read it as a straightforward mystery. Sadly, it’s that last one which is probably the least satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means terrible. But it’s just a little but silly, protracted and then when the killer is finally revealed, oddly unsatisfactory. It’s not difficult to work out where it’s going, despite the amount of red herrings Christie litters about the place. I am not discouraged from carrying on with the series, not by a long stretch, as I am sure there are many delights in store. But as introductions go, this is a very inauspicious one.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 43: Six Years by Harlan Coben

17447634I have never read a Harlan Coben book before. I keep confusing him with Dennis Lehane. Whenever I see anything about Harlan Coben, I always think “oh, yeah, he wrote Mystic River, I really want to read that. Wait. NO HE DIDN’T”. But I loved the French movie they made from his book Tell No-One and the plot for this sounded super intriguing so I thought what the heck.

So the titular time period is how long lapses between Jake Sanders watching the love of his life Natalie Avery, marry another man and said man turning up dead. At the wedding, Natalie made Jake promise to leave her alone, which Jake did. But, with The Other Guy now out of the picture, Jake goes to the funeral to get a glimpse of the woman he’s been carrying a torch for all this time. Only the grieving widow is absolutely not Natalie. Jake begins to break his promise to Natalie, that he would leave her alone, and begins to retrace the path of their all too brief affair. Only the place they met doesn’t seem to exist and people who knew them both at the time don’t seem to remember him either.  So Jake keeps on digging until he realises all too late in the day that he REALLY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED when Natalie made him promise to back off.

I’ll say this for the book, it rattles along at a fair old pace and I happily got caught up in it and wanted to see exactly how it was going to play out. I love plots like this in crime novels (Linwood Barclay’s No Time For Goodbye is still the pinnacle for me) so I was all “oooh, I wonder what the heck is going on, I bet it’s awesome”. The problem with the book, rattling along and readable as it is, I didn’t buy a single word of it. Characters were either too convoluted to be believable (Jake is a lecturer at a university. A fellow lecturer there used to work for the FBI, when they weren’t being an undersecretary of state. I’m so sure, Harlan.), or their actions were too annoying or incredulous to really get behind. Jake meets Natalie, they have a crazy passionate love at first sight relationship, but she pulls a volte face and says “oh, this dude I dated once, he’s totally the one. I’m marrying him. Come to the wedding, but after that never look for me again”. So far, so far-fetched. But Jake honours that promise. For six years. He doesn’t at any point think “I don’t buy this insane wedding” or “I wonder how Natalie is doing” and have a brief little social media cyberstalk. Come on now. That’s not really a plot point that had me saying “wow yeah totally get it”.

Leaving aside the fact that Jake is told several many times to stop looking for Natalie or he’s going to get her and other people killed if he doesn’t, but he doesn’t (douchebag), what Jake finds out along the way stretches the credibility further, until the final pages lay it all out for you and rather than going “oh my holy wow that’s just I had no idea oh my god”, you’re far likelier to roll your eyes and say “give me strength”. You know how you’ll spot a loose thread on a shirt and go to pick it out, only to find it’s unravelled a whole sleeve and the shirt is fucked? This book is full of plot points like that. I took issue with so many little points about technology and the like only to find if I applied enough thought, I’d knocked over the entire house of cards. That said, it’s never not entertaining. It’s just not quite the impenetrable and smart mystery Coben thinks it is.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 30: The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

17834904Flavia de Luce, we meet again. I’ve been nuts about the magnificently precocious 12 year old amateur sleuth ever since the opening pages of the first book, when she looked at the cook employed by her father at their huge country house and thought “will no-one rid us of this turbulent pastry chef?” She is an absolute delight of a character, though the series has shown signs of stalling, as Flavia continues to be the same age and remain in the same location, edging ever closer to Midsomer Murders territory.

So it’s a huge relief that this, the sixth instalment of the series, ups the game considerably. The cliffhanger ending of the previous novel was that Flavia’s mother Harriet had been found and was returning to Bishop’s Lacey. We start this book with the not altogether unsurprising development (since she has been missing for over ten years) that Harriet’s corpse is what has been found and her body is being returned to the village for burial. De Luces crawl out of the woodwork like never before, a mystery man goes under the train carrying Harriet’s body, Flavia becomes convinced she can resurrect the dead and somewhere, Winston Churchill pops up to ask about pheasant sandwiches. No, I haven’t had a stroke. See, Flavia’s mother was a government spy and Flavia begins to find out that the de Luce name is very heavily involved with protecting the realm and so it’s no wonder Harriet was killed. But who killed her? And who killed the man under the train? And why is there so much focus on pheasant sandwiches?

All will, of course, become clear, but not before Flavia meets her match in her equally precocious and multilingual cousin Undine and her frosty mother Lena. Bradley is back on form and some of the scenes between Undine and Flavia are properly laugh out loud funny with gems like “in ordinary circumstances, I would have responded to such a command by sending up a reply that would given Undine’s mother a perm that would be truly everlasting, but I restrained myself”. But the real joy in this book is that Bradley has aimed so much bigger with the murder mystery. Unmasking the perpetrator poses more questions than it answers and the end of this book sees Flavia parted not just from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, but from the UK entirely.

This epic widening of the canvas is something the series has been crying out for and here it is at last. I’ve dinged the last couple of books for being so safe in that regard and so I have nothing but praise now that all bets are off. Flavia will return next year in the 7th book, As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust, and I say brava.