Over 550 book reviews with full author links

29 January 2015

Malcolm MacDonald: Sons of Fortune

Spellbinding Victorian Family Saga
I admit to being an addict for Victorian Family Sagas, and this is one of the best. IMHO Malcolm MacDonald's Stevenson family saga  (which started with "World from Rough Stones") vies with and has the edge over R F Delderfield's magnificent Swann Family Saga (which started with "God is an Englishman").

The Stevenson family is now mega- rich (current equivalent of billionaires) and John Stevenson has two objectives, one to make sure his sons get the best education and the other for the family to be accepted into Society. Despite their wealth Victorian Society is very cautious about accepting the nouveaux riche especially when they started in poverty. The only sure way into Society is to be given a peerage by the Queen, but that would have to withstand a lot of prying into the family background by the monarch's minders. How John overcomes these drawbacks is one of the surprises in the book.

The book spends a lot of time covering the education of the elder sons, John (Boy) who John Senior wants to be his business successor, and Caspar who is destined for the Army. The descriptions of the brutal and shallow education at a top school are vivid, and the biggest surprise is that the two boys not only survive but flourish from what happens to them. Winifred, the eldest child, wants the kind of independence that her father will do everything, and I mean everything, to prevent.

Nora is still a power in the business but is losing power in the family as John changes. When she is concerned about what is happening to her boys at school she decides to visit the school. In a fascinating insight into her wealth and power she telegraphs their railway company to send up a private train with their own special carriage and a flat-top rail wagon to carry her carriage which will be needed to get to the school (today's equivalent of using a private jet and a limousine). Nora's reaction to the constraints of Society are also fascinating as she makes herself one of the most sought after hostesses in Society.

While I was totally absorbed in this wonderful and evocative tale of Victorian life I was a bit disappointed that Malcolm MacDonald changed John's character into a tartar of a Victorian father who would not listen to anyone except himself, I guess to make the story line work. That was certainly not the character that I admired so much in the first two books in the series much of whose success was due to his understanding of others.

Despite this I really enjoyed this book and think that overall it is as good, if not even slightly better, than its predecessors. Highly recommended to discerning readers who enjoy an adventurous and different picture of Victorian life.

17 January 2015

Michael Sears: Black Fridays: A Novel (Jason Stafford Book 1)

Excellent Financial Thriller with Heart
Jason Stafford was the first one of his class to become a Managing Director of a major Wall Street investment house and the first one in his class to go to jail. A small correction to a trade that snowballs into numerous corrections eventually leads to two years lonely and difficult incarceration.

Leaving jail Jason is facing a life alone, His wife has left him and taken his autistic five-year old and he could end up working in menial jobs because he is no longer welcome on Wall Street. But then a chance phone call has him working again on Wall Street on a short-term lucrative contract to look for irregularities in the books of a junior trader whose body has just been pulled out of the water. It's a case of using someone who knows how to fool the system to find out about someone who may have also fooled the system (just as many hackers find great jobs in computer security).

Jason also wants to get custody of his child from an alcoholic former wife. He finds "Kid" locked up by his mother-in-law because he is uncontrollable and takes him away to live with him in New York. Jason can't read or communicate well but he has an almost eclectic memory and can recite word-perfect descriptions of automobiles from memory that have been read to him.

Jason finds traces of a huge financial scam which has been hidden for years that is far bigger than one trader. But soon he's facing intimidation and threats, more people are dying and the FBI is involved. At the same time Jason is facing up to raising an extremely difficult autistic five-year-old alone, a major undertaking which brings great stress but great joy as "Kid" starts to connect with his father, There is a constant danger that his ex-wife and thug of a new husband may take legal action to take "Kid" away from him.

While Jason may be the hero of the book, despite his incarceration he is still infected by the Wall Street buzz of "money moving quickly. A drug that once ingested doesn't ever leave your system". This leaves him vulnerable to the pressures of the Street and he still has amoral traits that he can't resist.

This is a very well written financial thriller about very complex Wall Street trading arrangements which are described so that a layman can understand what is happening. The financial story is compulsive but what gives this book the edge are the heart-warming scenes of Jason's relationship with his son and the descriptions of the problems of autism.

This is an excellent debut novel about Wall Street but it is Jason's struggles as a single-parent that makes it stand out from the crowd. I see that Sears has written two more books in the Jason Stafford series and I will certainly read them soon.

16 January 2015

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go

A gem of a feel-good/feel-sad story
This is a gem of a feel-good/feel-sad story about life - impending death - and overall love. 27 year old Daisy had breast cancer three years ago and was in remission. Each year with her husband Jack they would celebrate "Cancerversary" - but this year is different. The cancer is back with avengence at stage 4 and has spread throughout her body, including a tumour in her brain.

Daisy goes through the classical reactions to shock/grief, first denial (let's get another opinion), depression and finally what I want to do before I go. It suddenly hits her that her loving husband, Jack, a brilliant workaholic veterinarian who is hopeless with everyday things, will be left to cope on his own.

She decides that there are two things she wants to do before she goes:

1. See Jack graduate with another doctorate he is studying - but time may not allow this.
2. Try and find him a wife who is able to support him when she is gone.

The good news is that on the whole she is feeling pretty well and she starts thinking about where to find her successor - online dating, coffee shops, parks etc. The search is more complicated than she expected. Every woman she sees who looks to be a candidate for Jack's future partner doesn't seem to be right - married, too sensitive, too pretty, and even a possible lesbian.

While Colleen Oakey is dealing with a basically sad subject she does it in a way that the reader is rarely depressed, with many laugh-out-loud situations interlaced with the sad ones. This is a great debut novel that will stay in my memory for a long time.

PS - The story reminded me in part of the strength of Jane McGrath, wife of former star Australian cricket fast-bowler, who was able to have two healthy children while in remission and also find time to set up a foundation to raise money to provide breast-care nurses throughout Australia (100 so far). Jane also lost her fight against cancer and died 11 years later. Each year the Sydney Cricket Test has a "Jane McGrath Day" where even the stumps are pink and most spectators wear something pink (the breast cancer charity colour). Glenn, her husband, a real hunk and star sportsman, was married again 2 years later to Sara who is now a loving step-mother to Glenn's children.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for a copy of this book for review.

15 January 2015

Andrew McKinty: Gun Street Girl: Sean Duffy 4

More big "Troubles" for Sean Duffy
Adrian McKinty's has written another in his splendid fictional representations of  "The Troubles" in Northern Island in the 1980's through the eyes of Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary.

While Duffy is a first class detective his character is flawed by what is happening around him. He checks every morning to make sure that there is no bomb underneath his car. When, all too frequently, riots break out he quits his detective work, dons a bullet-proof jacket, helmet and face-shield and goes out in an armoured Land Rover to face the riot, dodging bricks and petrol bombs thrown by both sides in the conflict. All of this takes a toll and Duffy is so stressed out at the end of the day that he needs a pint or two of vodka gimlet to make him relaxed enough to get a good night's sleep.

Duffy takes on a case where a wealthy couple are shot dead and then their son, who may have killed them, apparently commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. Duffy is not convinced by that scenario and takes a close look the son's life and relations with his parents and people associated with the son. He finds that the son had a keen interest in guns in College and had made many contacts in the gun industry. Slowly, through diligent police work, Duffy finds himself embroiled in a case of lost missiles systems, a shady American with powerful connections and a dangerous member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

There is a brief episode when Sean meets up again with enigmatic, beautiful, powerful and super-intelligent Kate Albright, the MI5 head of station in Belfast who he had helped to track down IRA bombers during IN THE MORNING I'LL BE GONE. Kate still wants to recruit Duffy but puts this on hold until he closes his current case. The book title relates to Kate's home in Gun Street on the mainland, where Kate and Sean have their closest personal encounter.

On its own this is a great police procedural, but combined with the background of "The Troubles" and actual events the book is a masterly historical action fiction thriller. Knowing that McKinty bases his plots around actual events I was looking for a connection to major historical events at that time. I couldn't work out what they were going to be and they really surprised me when they became evident. The final event was traumatic and will have a big impact on any further books that Mckinty may write in this series.

When McKinty started this series it was billed as a trilogy but I understand that his fans persuaded him to write another one. I am so pleased that he did as it adds some more perspective to "The Troubles" and showcases an author at the top of his form. This book is already in my list of top reads for 2015.

Pippa Croft: Third Time Lucky

Steamy coming-of-age melodrama
Once again I have put a toe into the water of contemporary romance to see what the water feels like. While I am SA - with the emphasis on the S for senior or senile - and not NA and am normally an avid reader of thrillers I did read and enjoy #1 in the series but missed #2. So when I saw that #3 was still available via Net Galley I wondered if I could catch up.

The answer is yes because all of the main characters are still there and up to their old tricks. While I know that this kind of book has to be populated with steamy scenes (and I mean populate) I found the characters and the background were more fascinating for me.

At the end of #2 the steamy and obsessive relationship between Lauren Cusack and handsome aristocrat Alexander Hunt (now Lord Falconbridge) is on the rocks and Lauren plans to head back to Washington on vacation before her final term at Wyckham College, Oxford. Then she gets a call which changes everything. Alexander has once again been on active military service and is in hospital with possibly fatal wounds. In a short period of consciousness he calls for two people, Lauren and his beloved adolescent sister Emmy. Once again Lauren falls under the spell of enigmatic Alexander and even when he is seriously ill Alexander still exudes a sexual attraction that Lauren can't avoid.

The background of an Oxford college and student life was charming and evocative. The background of Falconbridge and Alexander's disjointed family was fascinating especially the unplanned meeting of the families from both sides of the Atlantic.

Alexander's character, apart from his extreme sex drive, is still enigmatic, especially his military life, his long-term commitment to Lauren, and his feelings about running one of the largest estates in the country.

I loved the nasty characters who brought brilliant melodrama to the plot. Once again Valentinia, Alexander's ex-fiancée, is the ultimate bitch who even manages to up the ante on her previous bitchy performance. Just as nasty is Alexander's cousin Rupert who is the bane of his lovely mother Letty's life. Smarmy Professor Rafe is still around and the urinating scene involving Rupert and Rafe is one of the most memorable and amusing parts of the book.

All in all I found it an interesting, well written and enjoyable book even though it is way outside my age and genre. I am sure that it will be enjoyed by those who are in Pippa Croft's target audience.

Ward Larsen: Assassin's Games

The Reluctant Assassin
David Slaton, Kidon (Assassin) with Mossad no longer exists, At the end of THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, with the assistance of his former Director, David quietly exited his job to recover from multiple gunshots. After his recovery he is now living a happy peaceful life in Virginia under another identity with his wife Dr. Christine Palmer who had helped his pursuit of Mossad double-agents involved in hijacking a couple of nuclear weapons.

Despite his dreams of a normal life, a Kidon can never expect to retire completely. Recently Mossad has unsuccessfully tried several times to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientist, Dr. Ibrahim Hamedi who is key to Iran's development of a nuclear weapon. All attempts have been thwarted by an unknown spy in Mossad's ranks. The new Director believes only way to be successful is to use someone who doesn't exist - and Hamedi will be vulnerable when he goes to Geneva for a UN conference on Iran's nuclear plans.

David has vowed to never kill again, but when his wife is attending a medical conference in Stockholm is attacked and forced to flee or her life, he immediately springs back into action. He is faced with a dilemma - go to Geneva and kill Hamedi or lose his new life forever. Christine's words echo in his brain "If you kill this man in Geneva .... don't ever come back to me".

This is a tightly-plotted adrenaline-pumping contemporary espionage thriller with a special emotional edge. Well done Ward Larsen - you have written a sequel that is as good as the original (I went back and read it again and was just as impressed). This was one of the first books I read in 2015 and it is already on my short-list of top reads for the year.

14 January 2015

Ward Larsen: The Perfect Assassin

"Perfect" Mossad espionage adventure
I revisited THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, which I had read and enjoyed several years ago. At that time it wasn't clear that Larsen had planned a sequel (he has taken 6 years to do so) but I can now see that a sequel (ASSASSIN'S GAMES) was at the back of his mind.

Christine Palmer, a recently graduated doctor, is sailing solo across the Atlantic taking her late father's yacht back to America when she retrieves an almost lifeless body from the ocean clinging to some wreckage. David Slaton is the sole survivor of a ship that exploded and sank without warning.The dark side is that Slaton is a member of Mossad's Kidon (their special assassination team) who was on board a ship transporting a couple of nuclear weapons from South Africa to Israel.

Despite his condition Slaton soon takes control of Palmer's yacht and persuades her to sail to England where he slips ashore leaving her to report her situation to the local police in a small Cornish fishing village. While the police are working out what to do with her report she is about to be abducted by two men masquerading as police when David rescues her.

David and Christine then form a strange partnership trying to avoid Mossad double-agents who want to kill both of them. David uses all of his tradecraft skills to avoid them and thwart their plans. The police up the ante as the body count rises and Scotland Yard gets involved.

This is a very complex plot - but it works and is skillfully written. At the same time you learn a lot about how David became an assassin and the increasingly personal relationship with Christine as they come together to avoid capture. While I had read the book before I enjoyed it just as much on my second visit, I look forward to reading the sequel, ASSASSIN'S GAMES, which was published recently.

05 January 2015

Chris Carter: The Hunter

Short introduction to The Hunter
This is a very short introduction Chris Carter's main character Robert Hunter, who features in several of his very gritty thrillers. This time we meet Hunter on his first day when he is the youngest Homicide Detective the Los Angeles Police. He is not welcomed and is given a rookie task - what is thought to be a simple and boring suicide investigation which will keep him tied up in paperwork for days.

With his high IQ and methodical approach Hunter soon shows that he is not your normal rookie when he quickly finds that something doesn't look right, and the more he investigates the more suspicious the death seems. His superiors and his peers soon find that Hunter is not your normal rookie.

This is a pretty short e-novella designed to introduce a character and and contains promo chapters for a couple of Hunter's later cases. I normally avoid reading promo novellas but did so because I wanted to find out something more about Hunter who I had already met in Carter's superb but extremely gritty AN EVIL MIND. It really didn't tell me much other than highlight Carter's writing skills, but after reading his latest book I will certainly be putting some of the Hunter series onto my bookshelf for the rest of the year.

01 January 2015

Melissa F Miller: Irrefutable Evidence

Another interesting adventure for Sasha McCandless
This book runs almost the full gamut of things that we expect in a Sasha McCandless legal thriller. She gets dragged into unexpected trouble through her legal work, and finishes up relying on her Krav Maga skills to protect herself.

Sasha's husband Leo Connelly calls Sasha a "trouble magnet" and is overjoyed that no one has tried to kill them for seven months. Just as he is planning a romantic one-year wedding anniversary holiday in Fiji over Christmas, trouble strikes again as Sasha discovers a link to a huge arson-for-money fire insurance scam. The link is very important because the scam is master-minded by an important Mafia leader that the US Attorney has wanted to catch for years. It is especially dangerous to FBI agent Nino Carlucci, successfully under cover as driver for Peaches from the powerful Manetto crime family.

This is another easy reading, and mostly satisfying tale in the exciting lives of Sasha and Leo which probably ended a bit to soon for me. It is a quick read and some may even finish it in one session. The finale was one I had expected for some time which will add another dimension in the future to Sasha's already very complex life.

PS I still don't understand what Leo Connelly really does now that he has left the Federal Marshall service.

Best books of 2014

I read so many good books this year that it was difficult to make a choice of the best ones so  I decided to expand the list to 16 because I couldn't make up my mind which ones to drop. This year I read and reviewed about 140 books (plus a few more which didn't justify the effort of writing a review). Last year I read about 170 which included a few short e-novellas which I stopped reading this year as many of them are really quickly written promos for a forthcoming book. I also slowed down a bit towards the end of the year pending a (very successful) cataract operation.

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution to try and read some books outside my comfort zone of thrillers and historical family and action fiction. While I failed to keep my resolution some of my selections of "feel-good" books most certainly deserved to be included in this list. I have also tried to revisit some books that I read years ago, but I have deliberately excluded them from the list, despite really enjoying most of them once again.

While you will see that my favourite genre is thrillers (marked *) I have still read some outstanding books from other genres. The books are listed timewise, not in order of preference - that would be too hard.

Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project
THE ROSIE PROJECT is an entertaining and amusing feel-good story that made me laugh, and sometimes cry and looked at love, personal relationships and self-discovery in a very different way. Don Tillman is obsessive in his need for precise information so he starts up his own "Wife Project" by designing a multi-choice internet questionnaire to identify someone who completely meets his specific requirements for a wife.

Christina Baker Kline: The Orphan Train
This is a memorable feel-good story - a coming of age tale about two young girls faced with similar situations, albeit about 80 years apart. The background to the story is the so-called "Orphan Trains" that carried thousands of abandoned children from the US East Coast to the Midwest from mid 1800's to 1929. The children faced the possibility of being adopted by a kind and loving family, or facing a childhood of hard labor and uncaring servitude.

 Mark Gimenez: The Abduction *
I thought it would be hard for Mark Gimenez to match his debut novel "Color of Law" which was in last year's list but IMHO he has done that with his second novel "The Abduction". I expected that this would follow the pattern of Gimenez's other books which are mainly legal thrillers, but this is a no holds barred complex thriller which again puts him at the top of my favourite author list.

Jo Nesbo: The Son *
Most people will know Jo Nesbo's books through his very popular Harry Hole series. This time Nesbo has written a standalone thriller "The Son" (Sonnen in Norwegian) which IMHO equals if not surpasses his best Harry Hole thrillers. It is a pretty long and complex read and some of the violent parts may not be to everyone's taste.

Karin Slaughter: Cop Town *
Karin Slaughter steps out with a stunning, powerful, gritty, emotional and very different stand-alone novel set in Atlanta in 1974, then one of the most violent cities in America. While the story is stunning so is Slaughter's character building, especially with Kate Murphy, a rookie female cop from a privileged background facing the macho dominated Atlanta PD of the time.

This is a modern morality story about good and evil in life seen through the eyes of Weldon Holland who grew up in Texas during the Depression, fought in WWII and returned home to try to make his fortune. It is written by a master storyteller whose prose, as usual, is remarkable and atmospheric. In places it is a thriller but in other parts it is just great literary historical fiction and a touching love story.

Geoffrey McGeachin: St Kilda Blues  *
This is possibly one of the best Australian police crime thrillers I have read. One reason is pretty simple - this book doesn't include any of the over the top unbelievable rubbish that so many thriller authors use to attract their audience. It is written in clear and mostly simple prose, with great characterisation, solid police work, good intertwining of police and personal plot lines, well researched historical background and above all lots of plot twists which come together with an amazing emotional impact.

Taylor Stevens: The Catch *
This is Vanessa "Michael" Munroe at her/his best - one of the most complex, violent but compelling characters in modern adrenaline-filled action packed adventure fiction. IMHO Michael's complex and dangerous character eclipses that of  Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. In her youth Munroe experienced extreme violence which has left her with demons but with violent survival skills second to none. She is a polyglot who speaks many languages and quickly picks up others, is extremely intelligent and has an almost eidetic memory. Michael is tall and slim and can become androgynous, changing her sex to survive in different environments, especially where females are treated as second class citizens.

Stephen King: Mr Mercedes
This is a humdinger of a thriller which starts with a bang and continues to hold you on the edge of your seat till the very end. Everyday we drive automobiles that could be as dangerous as an automatic assault rifle. Driving a stolen Mercedes sociopath Brady Hartfield mowed down a crowded line of desperate job-seekers including a young baby. Brady was the only person who enjoyed that day. The power of the slaughter excited his sociopathic mind and everyday he re-lived the excitement of the slaughter, especially the death of the baby.

Fredrik Backman: A Man called Ove
This is a gem of a feel-good debut novel about A MAN CALLED OVE by Swedish author and blogger Fredrik Backman. It will make you laugh and make you cry and you will remember Ove for a long time. Some would call Ove a curmudgeon, a lovely word meaning a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. His wife called him the most inflexible man in the world - he borders on being obsessive compulsive but is generally a grumpy man who doesn't tolerate fools and likes things to be done that way he wants them. While many think that he is  just a rude and grumpy man, at heart you will find out that he is one of the kindest persons you will ever know.

Chris Carter: An Evil Mind *
This is a great psychological thriller about a serial killer who not only enjoys killing but gets a kick out of torture before death and dismemberment of the body before and after death. A freak accident when an elderly man has a heart attack and crashes into a parked car opens the trunk of a car containing a couple of savagely tortured heads. When the police arrest the owner of the car, Liam Shaw, he refuses to tell them anything and will only talk to Robert Hunter, a college friend who is now lead detective with the Ultra Violent Crime Unit of the LAPD . This book is not for the faint-hearted - I can't say that I enjoyed but it is so well crafted and absorbing that it deserves a spot in this list.

Candice Fox: Eden *
Last year I included Candice Fox's debut thriller HADES in the list. This year I had to include the next book in the series EDEN which is quite a different story but just as gritty, heavily based on savagery but showing some signs of humanity that was missing from her first book. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is a story about an imaginary savage underworld that most people cannot envisage - murderers, rapists, peodophiles and even a cannibal.

Adrian McKinty: In the Morning I'll be Gone: Sean Duffy 3 *
This is a marvellous mixture of fiction with actual history - "The Troubles" in Northern Island in the 1980's. The story is a mixture of fascinating insights into the minds of IRA terrorists and a clever police procedural investigation into an accident/possible murder of someone related to the escaped terrorist. McInty seamlessly mixes IRA terrorism with a murder plot and directs Duffy's investigations towards  one of the IRA's major bombing campaign. Look out for #4 GUN STREET GIRL to be released in Australia in early January 2015.

Michael Robotham: Life or Death *
This is an action-packed, adrenaline-charged, absorbing, wonderfully written and surprisingly sensitive story from Australian author who is not only one of the world's best writers of psychological fiction but is at the top of his form. On the day before he is about to be released from jail Audie Palmer escapes. Why would Audie want to escape when he could have walked free the next day? How is he going to survive a huge manhunt? While Audie wants to avenge his punishment and the corruption, money and treachery that put him in jail he also wants to be part of the life of someone precious to him.