“Want You Dead” by Peter James (2014)

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“Karl Murphy was a decent and kind man, a family doctor with two small children whom he was bringing up on his own.”

The Peter James series about Brighton detective Roy Grace rolls on, with Want You Dead being the tenth instalment. In the hands of a lesser author, the series could be getting tired by now, and yet here we are, with me finished and wanting to get hold of the next one. We return to Brighton’s criminal underbelly to meet with an obsessed stalker.

Red Westwood had left a dull relationship and tried online dating, where she met the rich, charming and handsome Bryce Laurent. He seemed too good to be true, but while her family and friends had reservations and told her to be careful, she blindly ignored them, until it was almost too late. Bryce became violent and jealous, and eventually, after Red’s mother had hired a private detective to prove that Bryce’s history was a tissue of lies, Red kicked him out. Bryce, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight. Red might be under police protection, but Bryce is determined to destroy everything she loves in the city: her new boyfriend, her favourite restaurant, her old car…

Red is now stuck in a nightmare she can’t wake up from, and despite the restraining order, Bryce seems to know everything about her, and is becoming more and more unhinged with every passing day. The spate of arson across Brighton doesn’t go unnoticed by Roy Grace and his team, however, and when they discover that Red is the link between the murder of Karl Murphy, the fire at a swanky bar, and the incident at an old block of flats that leads to the death of one of the police force’s finest sergeants, they pull out all the stops to see that Bryce is stopped. And on top of that, Roy really just wants to get married and have his honeymoon in peace, but crime doesn’t stop just because you’ve got a flight to Venice booked…

Starting out a little slower than usual from James, the emphasis – for the first half of the novel at least – is firmly on Red and her life. We know from the off that Bryce is responsible, so the mystery here is more how the police will capture him, rather than who is starting all the fires. Bryce Laurent is one of the most villainous characters in perhaps any crime novel in recent years; mentally unbalanced and damaged by an abusive childhood and an obsession with fire. He’s an egomaniac with a nasty temper, and will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he is owed. Roy and his team are on fine form here, too, and for a while it seemed like a run-of-the-mill entry into the series, but I should’ve prepared for more – as ever. With the death of one of the characters we have grown to know and love over the last ten books, and the return of another Roy hoped he’d never see again, it’s all change here and promises drama for the next book in the series.

James’s style is as readable as ever, with characters and scenes leaping off the page, particularly given any reader who has made it this far has is now very familiar with the characters. There are some huge tragedies awaiting in this one, so brace yourselves if you’re regular readers. It’s also worth noting something that I don’t think I’ve dwelt on too much before on these books – they are incredibly dark. The criminals are not those you’d find in an Agatha Christie – these are some proper bastards with evil minds and broken moral compasses. Ingeniously written, and you sometimes have to sit back and admire that Peter James – who otherwise seems a charming and friendly man – can create such odious characters and incredible scenarios.

Keep ’em coming.

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“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

Roald Dahl: Three Novels

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So, while this year I started re-reading Douglas Adams, I also pencilled in another go over Roald Dahl’s back catalogue. I read one of his adult collections last year, and in enjoying it, it made me nostalgic for those of my childhood. I was going to wait until I’d finished Adams, but instead I decided to make a little dent in the collection this morning and powered through three before lunch. Here, therefore, are short reviews for three of the shortest in Dahl’s oeuvre.

The Magic Finger (1966)

“The farm next to ours is owned by Mr and Mrs Gregg.”

The Magic Finger is possibly Dahl’s weirdest, and given what it’s up against, that’s certainly saying something. The plot is tiny, featuring an unnamed girl who has the ability to point her finger at people when they make her angry and punish them in supernatural ways. She vows never to use her powers again after accidentally giving her teacher whiskers, but when she sees her neighbours have been hunting again and killed a beautiful deer, she uses the magic finger on them and gives them a taste of their own medicine.

While the story isn’t perhaps his most memorable, its brevity is full enough with the qualities you expect from him. It’s dark, somewhat macabre, and given a vitally important moral that almost certainly turned more than a few children vegetarian, for a while at least. As with all the books though, the real magic actually comes from Quentin Blake’s gorgeous illustrations. While sketchy and perhaps derided by those who don’t understand the style, they fit perfectly with the tale. I love that the story gives us absolutely no indication of how the heroine got her powers, when else she’s used it, or what she’ll go on to do with the rest of her life. It’s a slice-of-life that’s bizarre and treated as totally normal, making it even more fun.

Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)

“Down in the valley there were three farms.”

This is probably one of his most famous stories. In it, Mr Fox and his family are besieged by three evil farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. When the farmers reach breaking point with Mr Fox stealing their animals to feed his own family, they decide to dig him out of his hillside home. Mr Fox, however, is much smarter than them, and while they have left their farms to hunt down their enemy, the animals of the forest set about ensuring a bountiful feast.

Again, the short story is wonderfully illustrated by Blake, and the characters shine through. The villains here are particularly revolting – although still nothing compared to the third story listed here – and starkly memorable. Once they’ve set up position on the hill awaiting Mr Fox to reach desperation and come out to find some food, the drama abates, and while there are a couple of other threats installed later, they don’t seem to have the same heft as the three farmers.

Nonetheless, this is one of my favourite Dahl books. While not perhaps actually as dark as some of his others, it’s still a really engaging story and one worth returning to due to its morals about sharing, community and obsession.

The Twits (1980)

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.”

If there was ever more proof needed that fashion and style trends are circular in nature, the opening line of The Twits is evidence enough. I was going to say that the rest doesn’t really apply, but then again, it’s about incredibly vile, stupid people doing incredibly vile, stupid things, so maybe there are parallels to modern society?

Mr and Mrs Twit are retired monkey trainers who now spend their days playing mean pranks on one another, commanding their caged monkeys to do tricks upside down, and painting glue on trees to catch birds for their weekly Bird Pie. It seems that no one can stop their deranged activities, until one of the monkeys comes up with a plan to get revenge.

They are two of the most disgusting characters in literature, and not just in Dahl, but oddly engaging. The moral here is about being a good person, and contains the famous analysis that it doesn’t matter what you look like, but people with good thoughts will always appear beautiful, while nasty, toxic thoughts will poison you and make you look unattractive. There’s more than a touch of surrealism about this one, but it’s also quite funny, and I particularly enjoy the scenes where Mrs Twit believes herself to be shrinking thanks to a prank by her husband that’s actually pretty well executed.

All in all, in diving back into Roald Dahl I’m realising that there’s perhaps a lot more of these books than I thought. I’d never really associated any of them as having morals, save for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really lays it on thick, but these are definitely books that have something to teach you. While aimed at children, and notable as much of Dahl’s work is for having adults who are fundamentally useless, there’s definitely cause for adults to return to their childhood and have another look at these unusual, dark and yet somehow charming stories.

“The Twitch” by Kevin Parr (2013)

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“I’m not certain whose head I can see the top of, bobbing rhythmically into view about the low brick wall by the potting shed.”

I like a bit of nature spotting, and there is something particularly endearing about watching birds. I’m not someone who’s going to be haring up to some remote coast to get a glimpse of a curlew, but I’m quite happy to sit and watch them in the garden. Our garden isn’t particularly big and we only really get collared doves, jackdaws and blackbirds popping in. My grandparents have a plethora of feathered visitors from blue tits to woodpeckers in their garden, and when I was at university, I lived not far from a colony of wild parakeets. It’s the birds of prey that really do it for me though. I still get a lurch of excitement when I catch sight of a kestrel or a buzzard. For some people, however, this is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Edward Banger took up twitching a couple of years ago under the tutelage of his friend Mick. It’s January and time for the annual competition to see who in the club can spot the most birds in the coming year. Edward is determined to break the record and be crowned the champion, but he’s got some stiff competition from rivals who have been doing this a lot longer than him and seem to be using knowledge granted to only the group’s “inner circle” to bump up their tick lists.

After a couple of his rivals die in strange circumstances that Edward may or may not have been intentionally responsible for, he begins to realise that the best way to win would be to bump off the others and make sure they won’t be around to compete. Becoming obsessed with ticking off every bird on the list, he begins to spend his life on the road, letting his job fall by the wayside and ignoring his home life with his wife and two daughters. Around him, he cannot see what is happening to his life as he’s a man on a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of him achieving his goal. Nothing.

Edward is an appalling human being, and steadily gets worse as the novel progresses. He has such little interest in his family that when one of his daughter’s mentions she can drive, he admits he didn’t even know she’d had a test. The obsession that consumes him is one that is probably a genuine issue for some people, but I can’t imagine being this enamoured by anything. While everything does crumble around him, it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for him as he’s pretty much brought on all of his issues himself. He’s not entirely irredeemable, though, despite being a murderer. He has a sweet – but increasingly strained – relationship with his younger daughter Nicola, and he’s portrayed as having a good turn of phrase, meaning he’s quite a funny man. But he’s selfish beyond all sanity, and his friends are hardly the most pleasant company.

I also found it odd that, despite many high-profile members of his twitching club all dying in strange circumstances, the finger of suspicion never seems to point at him, and indeed, no one ever seems to find it particularly odd, giving the impression that this competition is such a big deal that it’s quite common for three or four of the twitchers to die every year. There are also a few plot threads that seem to be leading somewhere and then never do. For example, Edward says he is terrified of gulls, and yet we never really find out why and nor is there any payoff to this.

It ends rather abruptly with a lot of unanswered questions and I’d certainly be intrigued to find out quite how he managed to restore order to his life and what happened, but I guess he’ll just continue being an obnoxious git until he’s snuffed out in a tent. It’s darkly funny and quite interesting, but there’s only so many bird names I can read before they all start merging into one. A nice concept though, and a great look at how obsession can make anyone do things they never thought they could do.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan (1997)

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Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

“The beginning is simple to mark.”

My sister bought me this book without having any idea what it was. It was in a shop where a particular stand had all its books wrapped in brown paper, with keywords written on the outside to give a taster of what was inside. I believe these are done all over the place now, presumably to counteract the notion of judging books by their covers. Thus, it was a surprise to both of us as to what the book actually was inside the packaging. Fortunately, she knows me well, and the keywords aligned to give me a book I enjoyed, by an author I’ve read a couple of times before, Ian McEwan.

In this story, Joe Rose has his entire life changed by one, single moment. While he and his partner of many years, Clarissa, are having a picnic, they are interrupted by an out-of-control hot air balloon, with a man stuck in the ropes. Without thinking, Joe runs to help, along with several other people who happen to have been nearby, including farmhands and a passing doctor. The men try and bring the hot air balloon down and save the boy in the basket, but the winds are too strong and one by one they let go, until just one man is left clinging on, until the dreadful moment where he falls and dies.

Joe is overwhelmed and while checking the body on the off chance for its survival, he is followed by another one of the rescuers, Jed Parry, who asks him to pray with him. Joe politely declines the offer and returns to Clarissa, but later that night, Joe gets a phone call from Parry, informing him that he loves him, and he knows the feeling the reciprocated.

Thus begins a tale of pure obsession, as Parry continually tries to contact Joe, tells him how much he loves him, and begs him to stop playing games, leave Clarissa, and admit his returning feelings out loud. After the phone calls come letters, and then Parry is outside the flat at all times. As much as Parry is obsessed, Joe too becomes fixated on Parry, wondering what exactly he wants and how to get rid of him. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is in Joe’s head? As tensions rise, Joe has to struggle with the loss of his rationality, sanity and Clarissa while Parry continues his renlentless pursuit of the object of his affections.

McEwan often seems to like taking a very small moment and dissecting it to its absolute fullest. The first two chapters, indeed, are very minutely detailed. The first spends a number of pages discussing the moment that Joe and Clarissa first notice the balloon, and the second seems to be almost entirely about the fall of the dead man. While this is not exactly a fast book by any means, the pacing works for it and it’s so tense because of it. You can almost hear Joe’s mind unspooling as he struggles to cope with this sudden interruption to his daily routine.

I don’t know if the book is has ever really been considered a thriller, but it definitely is one, keeping you on tenterhooks throughout as you start to wonder which one is the more deranged, Joe or Parry. The novel is mostly told from Joe’s viewpoint, but one chapter slips into the third person to detail Clarissa’s day, and another four take the form of letters to Joe – three from Parry, one Clarissa.

Ian McEwan is a great writer, who takes ordinary people and thrusts them into difficult situations, as all good books should, and this is definitely one that has something wonderfully haunting about it and will linger in your mind for some time.