‘The Virgin of the Wind Rose’ by Glen Craney

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The Virgin of the Wind Rose
4-stars

While probing the murder of her missionary boyfriend in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane discovers a strange word square in an underground church. Teaming up with the elusive Elymas she follows the ancient clues to Rome, Nova Scotia and Sumatra. Running alongside the main story is a much older one – in 1452, a group of young men (including Christopher Columbus) set out on a mission to protect ancient secrets but soon find themselves facing a conspiracy that aims to rid the world of Jews, heretics and non-believers.

The novel reminded me a lot of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and there were similarities in the way the would-be code-breakers tracked the clues. The plot was clever and well constructed, and occasionally hard to follow, though the switching between the two stories worked well. I was initially drawn to the two main characters, particularly the wonderfully mysterious Elymas, but after a while, I did find Jaq Quartermane a little irritating. In the author’s favour, the depth of research gives the historical aspects a healthy spoonful of kudos and the attention to detail is commendable. But while I have to admire the storytelling, as in Mr Brown’s case, it all felt just a tad far-fetched.

A clever, complicated and thought-provoking novel – if you like conspiracy theories and Indiana Jones-type adventures, this’ll go down a treat.

 
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‘The Lights Went Out and Other Stories’ by Fiona Cooke Hogan

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The Lights Went Out and Other Stories
4-stars

Taking the ordinary and everyday, Ms Hogan weaves her fictions around seemingly unexciting people and commonplace occurrences, creating recognisable and occasionally extraordinary stories, that reflect the feelings and obsessions we all encounter from time to time.

From the petty arguments and disagreements in ‘Table By the Window’ and ‘Soul Mates’, to the scarily real ‘Murder in the Mail Centre’ and the all-too-familiar marital un-bliss in ‘Choking’, the author dips into lives that have something to say, though the observations of her characters are often proverbial rather than insightful.

This is an interesting assortment of stories, including flash fiction and a few longer tales, and as with most short story collections, there are a few that stand out and a few that don’t. In ‘Darkling’ for instance, the writing is at times quite beautiful, almost poetic in its forms, whereas in ‘The Welcoming Committee’ the ending was obvious almost from the start. My general impression is that some stories have been worked on more than others and this is clear in the quality and intelligence of the writing.

Fiona Cooke Hogan is a talented author and I’d be interested to see more of her work. Her Rather Long Short Story ‘What Happened In Dingle’ is out now.
 
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How to Turn an Idea into a Novel…

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All writers are asked where they get ideas from and whenever I start a new project, I often find myself wondering about the process I go through from that first spark to the finished novel. For instance, with my current Work in Progress (Death on a Dirty Afternoon), I know very well where the original idea came from but I’m not so sure how it ended up with the particular characters, events and plot I’m now heavily immersed in.

In the early Nineties I spent a couple of years working as a taxi driver – initially for a couple of existing taxi firms and then as an owner-driver. It wasn’t the happiest time in my life and in many ways I’d be glad to have it erased from my memory.

However.

At the time I was struck by the differences I noticed between the small seaside town I knew as a tourist, and my opinion of the same place after I’d experienced it from the point of view of a cab driver. From the usual sea-front amusements, deck chairs, flower gardens, theatre and other familiar sights in such a place, I was suddenly plunged into the seedier side of the town. I got to know the drug-pushers, the prostitutes, the villains and ne’er-do-wells, the pubs that held ‘lock-ins’ til the early hours, the illegal gambling dens and the places to avoid on a dark night.

At some point, I wrote a poem about the place, but it was dreadfully gloomy and (rather unsurprisingly) didn’t portray the town in a positive light. Nevertheless, the idea of writing about it in some way has stayed with me.
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So the basic idea was that the story would be set in a fictional version of that very same seaside town with my taxi-driver hero somehow getting involved in a murder. And since I never plan any further than the title, all I knew was I wanted it to be a bit Raymond Chandler-ish in tone.

When I started writing, I noticed the images in my head (the ones that usually hang around when I start a new book), totally changed as soon as I’d written the first line.

Very quickly I realised the fictional town I thought I was creating had turned into a completely different fictional town. And whenever I had my protagonist go anywhere, it was down the streets and alleyways of the new town. Also, my hero (Terry), isn’t quite as witty as Mr Chandler’s creations, though I quite like his voice.

What I’m trying to say is that the idea I started with, even though it sounds basically the same, was very different to what I’ve ended up with. And I know that doesn’t matter, but it’s one of those things that always niggles me a little – the way we constantly make decisions about plot, character and interactions, and how each decision can take the story in a new direction.

If it were possible, I’d love to be able to write all the different versions of a book from that first idea, just to see where each one ends up. But then I’d just lumber myself with a load of strangely-similar tales. Probably.

‘Killing Ways’ by Alex Barclay

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Killing Ways
new-5-stars

FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce and the Safe Streets Task Force get more than they bargained for when they begin an investigation into what looks like the work of a serial killer. When the murderer’s modus operandi appears to change, the team face an ever-increasing body count and precious little evidence.

Ren studies the case both at work and at home – her growing fixation to track the killer taking over her very existence, but can her chaotic lifestyle and tangled love life fit in with the need for solid detective work? When she meets a NYPD cop whose path has crossed that of the killer’s before, it looks as if the FBI might have the upper hand for once. However, the vicious encounter has left the detective deeply scarred and hanging on to an agenda that demands its own brand of justice.

If you like brutal, bloody and page-turning denouements, this’ll be right up your homicidal alley. It’s the fourth book in the Ren Bryce series and though the story includes references to the earlier books, it also works well as a stand-alone thriller.

Alex Barclay writes hard, gritty fiction that serves up the gore with a big shovel. Her characters are utterly believable, flawed and damaged and her prose sparkles with the kind of detail that gives this type of story exactly what it needs to raise it above a run-of-the-mill police procedural. I loved Ren’s bi-polar inner voice and the way she deals with her obsession to find the killer, and while she occasionally does stupid things like not waiting for backup and not taking her medication, I was rooting for her all the way to the end.

 
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‘The Husband’s Secret’ by Liane Moriarty

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The Husband’s Secret
new-5-stars

This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally read. I only picked it up because it was in a pile of paperbacks someone had brought in to work that had been sitting on top of a filing cabinet for a few days. ‘The Husband’s Secret’ was the top one. I read the first page and that was all I needed. Don’t really know what it was, but something just grabbed me and hauled me in. I love Liane Moriarty’s writing – it seems so simple, and yet she uses language like a professional pizza-maker – each word perfectly cut, formed and fitted into exactly the right place in such a way that you can almost touch each character.

Beautiful writing, sharply-drawn characters and a story that brought me to tears (mind you, I cry all the time, so that’s no recommendation). Just read it. Now.

 
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‘The Pink Beetle’ by Caspar Vega

the-pink-beetle
The Pink Beetle
new-5-stars

When I agree to review a book, my decision is usually based on several factors, including the quality of the writing, the blurb, the page length and the genre, but in this case, it was mostly based on the cover. (Yeah, I know, what can I say – image is everything).

The Pink Beetle is a kind of pulp novella, which begins with a young boy racing to grab the latest issue of his favourite comic book featuring the irrepressible Pink Beetle himself. As old Alfie Hitchcock used to say – an audience would rather be confused than bored, and I was certainly a little perplexed with this four-part story. But that perplexity did not last and I was quickly drawn into this strange tale which I’m not going to tell you about because that would spoil it.

I will say this – the writing is clever, witty and engaging and (even while I was confused) I was touched and amused by the enthusiasm and inventiveness of the writing. Caspar Vega employs a style that, dare I say it, is like nothing I’ve seen in a long time. There’s without doubt a huge big wodge of talent here and I’ll be popping into Mr Vega’s bookstore again very soon.

 
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