Friday, July 27, 2018

This title popped up on my audible app and I was immediately intrigued. It just goes to show what a good title and cover can do. It also helped that the book was endorsed by Stephen King apparently.

The blurb:

In 1986, Eddie and his friend are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy little English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for each other as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing will ever be the same.

In 2016, Eddie is fully grown, and thinks he's put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out his other friends got the same messages, they think it could be a prank...until one of them turns up dead. That's when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

Expertly alternating between flashbacks and the present day, The Chalk Man is the very best kind of suspense novel, one where every character is wonderfully fleshed out and compelling, where every mystery has a satisfying payoff, and where the twists will shock even the savviest listener.

Opening Sentence: The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.

Days to read: 11 (Audible)

After being intrigued by the cover and title, the blurb well and truly sucked me in. This is a debut novel but you would not know it. Having said that the blurb highlights how Tudor expertly alternates between flashbacks and the present day – I would not necessarily agree with this. 

For the first third of the novel at least, the strength of the story in the flashbacks is far superior to the lack of action in the present day. Tudor captures the language, the feel and the wonderment of a child hood which, being a similar age, I could really enjoy and be nostalgic with. The banter between the gang of five children is great as are their fears and excitement. They might start off as caricatures as Tudor rushes a little to get their traits across rather than showing us their personalities naturally, but overall, despite the impending sense of doom which hangs over the gang, I couldn’t help but enjoy their escapades with a smile on my lips.

Eddie the POV character, is the most level headed of the five and through him we experience his anxieties and insecurities of being a teenager and his little secret of stealing objects. I especially liked the group dynamic. Not everyone gets on with each other but there is an acceptance that their group is their group and they would stick up for each other regardless. Their reactions to events are consistent with their characters and the supporting characters are both mysterious and likeable.  

The present day narrative is slow to begin with and the characters we see are more cynical, jaded and generally not as fun. There is nothing wrong with this realistic approach, it is just that Eddie has disappointedly drifted through his life and not amounted to much. However, when a certain event occurs, the tension is really ratchetted up a notch. From then the pace of the narrative increases and there are twists and turns galore. Every time you think you have the plot figured out, Tudor pulls the rug out from under your feet. In the final third, when the prose switched between the two time periods I generally groaned as I wanted the plot to continue, so I guess I don’t entirely disagree with the blurb.

Overall then, the Chalk man is an accomplished and impressive debut. The ending was more than satisfactory with a great twist I never saw coming. I will not hesitate to purchase the next book from Tudor.

My rating: 8.7

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Can you believe it has been over 7 years since I read my last Sharpe novel? 7 years! I’ve published 4 more books since then!! During that time, I’ve read several of Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (excellent) and the first three of his Grail Quest (very good) but some time spent with everyone’s favourite lovable rogue was long overdue.


The blurb:

The year is 1805, and the Calliope, with Richard Sharpe aboard, is captured by a formidable French warship, the Revenant, which has been terrorizing British nautical traffic in the Indian Ocean. The French warship races toward the safety of its own fleet, carrying a stolen treaty that could provoke India into a new war against the British -- and render for naught all that Sharpe has bravely fought for till now. But help comes from an unexpected quarter. An old friend, a captain in the Royal Navy, is on the trail of the Revenant, and Sharpe comes aboard a 74-gun man-of-war called Pucelle in hot pursuit. What results is a breathtaking retelling of one of the most ferocious and one-sided sea battles in European history, in which Nelson -- and Sharpe -- vanquish the combined naval might of France and Spain at Trafalgar.

Opening Sentence: “A hundred and fifteen rupees,” Ensign Richard Sharpe said, counting the money onto the table.

Days to read: 23

If there was one criticism I could level at the Sharpe novels it would be that the books are a little similar regarding the plot and the villains. The plot usually involves Sharpe performing some extraordinary exploits whilst the villains are cartoonish in their petty and malicious behaviour. Neither of these points bother me too much though as you go into the novel knowing exactly what you are getting and sometimes you just want your bad guys to be bad. Not every character has to have “grey areas” or be identifiable on some level. Life is not like that and I like my novels to not be like that as well.

Sharpe’s Trafalgar as the title suggests, places Sharpe in a completely new environment, onboard a ship in the middle of the ocean. Sharpe is firmly a soldier and so it is nice to see him out of his comfort zone. It adds a new dimension to his character and limits his skills drastically.

I mentioned the above formula being prevalent in the preceding novels, but in Sharpe’s Trafalgar the formula is well and truly ripped up. Sharpe is more of a bystander in this novel and his actions are defined only by the superior officers and captains around him. He does influence events but not to a significant degree.

Instead, Sharpe’s Trafalgar is more of a love story as Sharpe becomes fixated on lady Grace Hale. Grace is of course out of Sharpe’s class and therefore out of his league.  Sharpe is content to admire her from afar for this very reason but inevitably, we soon learn that his lust is not as unrequited as she thinks.

At first Grace seems a one-dimensional character. She is trapped by her marriage and longing to be rescued by an exciting, scoundrel. There was a danger that she would not develop beyond this and just become another damsel, fawning over the irresistible Sharpe. Cornwall avoids this trap by slowly unveiling a tragic backstory. It is not the most in depth past you will ever read, but at least it gives Grace a little more substance.

As for the villains, they are much more of a variety. Yes, there is the snide, jealous Braithwaite but the main villains are a trickster we have met in previous novels and Grace’s husband who is far savvier then we are led to believe.

As I mentioned above, Sharpe does not have much influence over the events that unfold. Instead, this novel is more of an account of what it was like to be onboard a ship at sea. Details of the tedious lifestyle are superbly told as is the very real dangers of lack of supplies. Sharpe does demonstrate his dark side in this novel which proves he is less than perfect and is an interesting development in his character. 

The real crux of the story is the battle of Trafalgar itself. Cornwall has always been accurate and has always had a knack of recounting battles. I got the impression the whole reason for this novel was for Cornwall to have the opportunity to retell this historic battle with Nelson’s novel strategy. That is fine by me as Cornwall once again does a superb job. I confess I only vaguely knew the detail of the battle prior to reading this novel, but reading about the atrocities first hand and then sacrifices made by the British to implement their plan are both mind blowing and fascinating. 

Overall if you are expecting a traditional Sharpe novel you may be a little disappointed. After 7 years, I went in expecting one thing but was pleasantly surprised with what I got. Sharpe is still Sharpe, a character you just can’t help but love. Put him in space and I would still read the story.

My rating: 8.6

Friday, July 13, 2018

Stephen King - The Outsider

Stephen King – The Outsider

I couldn’t have revisited my favourite authors without taking in a Stephen King novel. Over the last couple of years, King has moved away from the supernatural horror mould and gone for more crime related books with science fiction based elements. This has led to the excellent Jonas Hodges trilogy and the good but somewhat sluggish in parts, Sleeping Beauties. His latest novel sounded it like it would be pure crime and I for one couldn’t wait for its release. 

The blurb:

When an eleven-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses undeniably point to the town's popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence and fingerprints confirm the crime was committed by this well-loved family man.

Horrified by the brutal killing, Detective Ralph Anderson, whose own son was once coached by Maitland, orders the suspect to be arrested in a public spectacle. But Maitland has an alibi. And further research confirms he was indeed out of town that day.

As Anderson and the District Attorney trace the clues, the investigation expands from Ohio to Texas. And as horrifying answers begin to emerge, so King's propulsive story of almost unbearable suspense kicks into high gear.

Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy but there is one rock-hard fact, as unassailable as gravity: a man cannot be in two places at the same time. Can he?

Opening Sentence: It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.

Days to read: 28 (audible)

The premise in the blurb supplies the mystery for the first third of the novel. King does a great job of investigating the gruesome death of a local boy through supplying manuscripts of witness interviews and good old fashion police detective work. One second you are convinced Terry Maitland is guilty and then next you can’t see how he possibly could have done the crime. I loved this element of the story, as a reader you obviously want to root for Terry and hope there has been a terrible mistake, but this being a King novel, you get the sense of dread that maybe, Terry really is the vile man everyone thinks he is.

As usual King’s characterization is superb. You side with the protagonists and loathe the despicable characters. King does a great job of making you feel empathy towards Terry and his family, whilst also sowing enough seeds of doubt to make you question the character.

With Ralph Anderson we have a protagonist who has strong morals but is not above admitting when he makes mistakes. His conviction in his actions is admirable, but I loved how he was humble enough to question his methods.

One of my favourite films growing up was From Dusk Til Dawn. The twist in it blew my mind and although I loved it, I couldn’t help mourning the first half of the film and wished it had continued in the same direction prior to the twist. Whilst the Outsider doesn’t possess a twist quite so extreme, as soon as the supernatural element is introduced, I found myself experiencing the same feeling as when I was young. 

The direction the novel heads in is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is very good in fact, but the first half was so finely poised and set up I couldn’t help but wish the supernatural element had not occurred. Any long-term readers of my reviews will know how hypocritical that sounds as I normally love a supernatural element.  

Incidentally, the supernatural element in this novel is fantastic. It draws upon a myth I knew nothing about and have looked into a lot since. I won’t say anymore as I don’t want to spoil anything.

The second half of the novel also sees the return of one of my favourite characters in a King novel. Again, I won’t say who they are, but they take a prominent role and it is nice to see them interact with a different set of characters this time around. I listened to the audio narration of the book by Will Patton (who as usual does a fantastic job). I will confess that initially I hated his interpretation of the returning character but by the end came to love it.

I’ve seen reviews where people have called the ending anti-climatic. I can see what they are saying but for me it was one of the more satisfying endings and liked that King did not drag the conclusion out unnecessarily. I thought it was also consistent with the villain’s character.

Overall, the Outsider is a terrific book. I think it is a testament to King’s writing that I wanted the novel to be something a little different due to how well it began but have no complaints as to how it turned out. Gruesome with great characters and a cool villain, what more could you ask for?

My rating: 9.0

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Executioner – Chris Carter

Chris Carter is an author I discovered by chance. I saw the name and thought it was the guy that created the X-Files TV series so I brought the short story called “the Hunter”. I loved that story and then discovered the two Carters were not the same men. Since then I have read the first book in Carter’s Robert Hunter series and loved it. As part of my favourite author’s campaign, I squeezed this second book in, confident I would enjoy it.

The Blurb:

Inside a Los Angeles church, on the altar steps, lies the blood-soaked, decapitated body of a priest. Carefully positioned, legs stretched out, arms crossed over the chest, the most horrifying thing of all is that the priest's head has been replaced by that of a dog. Later, the forensic team discover that, on the victim's chest, the figure 3 has been scrawled in blood. At first, Detective Robert Hunter believes that this is a ritualistic killing. But as more bodies surface, he is forced to reassess. All the victims died in the way they feared the most. Their worst nightmares have literally come true. But how could the killer have known? And what links these apparently random victims? Hunter finds himself on the trail of an elusive and sadistic killer, someone who apparently has the power to read his victims' minds. Someone who can sense what scares his victims the most. Someone who will stop at nothing to achieve his twisted aim.

Opening Sentence: “Ironic how the certainty in life is death, don’t you think?” The man’s voice was calm.

Days to read: 12 (fast for me these days)

As far as blurbs go, that one is pretty awesome right? Gruesome, intriguing and just so damn readable. If I had read this blurb a year ago I would have read this book sooner.

Carter has such an easy writing style. He writes in a clear, simple way that automatically engages the reader. He almost has the conversational tone which Stephen King and Robert Crais has, but without having it – if that makes sense?

I love his main character Robert Hunter. These days it is the fashion to deplore perfect characters with superior intellect and who are better than anyone else. Robert Hunter certainly falls into that category, but whilst Chris Carter has built his protagonist up and placed him onto a pedestal, he is now in a position to tear him down and examine his flaws. In two and a half books, I became so accustomed to Hunter being right that when he does make a wrong move it is a shock.

His partner Carlos Garcia is also well drawn. Loyal but with his own story arc he acts as a nice foil to Hunter’s incessant devotion to solving the crimes. Hunter is fully aware of the impact of his actions has on others, and his consideration to Garcia’s wellbeing is a nice obstacle to his cavalier attitude.
This novel also introduces Captain Barbara Blake, a hard-nosed, no nonsense voice of authority. Barbara is another nice foil to Hunter. Impressed with Hunter’s and Garcia’s results but far from enamoured with their methods, Barbara is the type of character that crops up in countless novels. However, Carter makes her believable rather than a stereotype.

As the blurb itself suggests, the plot centres around a series of despicable murders which focus on the victim’s worst nightmares. Carter does not shy away from the brutality of the murders and spares little in the way of detail. The deaths are vile, the imagination of the author disturbing and I for one loved it!

Finding the link between the murders is cleverly unveiled. Carter deftly peels away layer upon layer of the mystery introducing enough twists and turns to throw you off the scent.

The ending and resolution of the mystery is extremely satisfying. The reveal didn’t blow me away, but I can’t say for certainty that I expected it. 2.5 books in and the Hunter series is one I will be reading with far more frequency.

My rating: 9.2

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Sharon Bolton - The Craftsman

Sharon Bolton – The Craftsman
There are favourite authors, there are authors I enjoy and there are authors who I always buy their books as soon as they are released. Sharon Bolton is not an author who I’d list if I was asked to name my top 5 authors and yet she is one of the few authors I buy as soon as she releases a new book.

The blurb:

Devoted father or merciless killer?

His secrets are buried with him.

Florence Lovelady's career was made when she convicted coffin-maker Larry Glassbrook of a series of child murders 30 years ago. Like something from our worst nightmares the victims were buried...ALIVE.
Larry confessed to the crimes; it was an open and shut case. But now he's dead, and events from the past start to repeat themselves.

Did she get it wrong all those years ago?
Or is there something much darker at play?

Opening Sentence: On the hottest day of the year, Larry Glassbrook has come home to his native Lancashire for the last time, and the townsfolk have turned out to say goodbye.  

Days to read: 27 (audible)

There are not many people who’d disagree that being buried alive is one of the worst things you could imagine. A killer who gets his kicks out of knowing their victims are struggling for their lives and know they can’t do anything about it, is just about as heinous as they come.

The Craftsman focuses on the character of Florence Lovelady and switches between her present and her past. In the past, she is a new detective and being a woman is in the minority in a chauvinistic world where her fellow officers view her as a “glorified tea lady.” This is hardly a new concept and Bolton adds nothing new in describing the pathetic behaviour of Florence’s male colleagues and their treatment of her. What I did like though was that this was not the primary focus of the novel.

Florence is a strong, educated woman, who accepts the way of the world and doesn’t complain about it. She pushes back against the archaic ideals of her male colleagues but she doesn’t make it her mission. She is fully aware of the way of the world and despite running rings around the men in her department, tries not to make a big thing about it. Instead, she focuses on the case and nothing more.
I found this particularly refreshing and it made Florence eminently more likeable. Especially as she makes mistakes in her overzealous nature and naivety. A flawed character is always more interesting than a perfect one and Florence is certainly that.

The secondary characters are well drawn and Bolton does a good job or maintaining the tension and providing a good cast of suspects whilst not providing obvious motivations for the crimes.

Her investigations lead her to uncover a coven of witches. This is Sharon Bolton’s 10th novel. Her Flea Marley series is gripping but I also love her early work which had a hint of the supernatural or at least raised questions of supernatural elements. A story that includes witches then is right up my street. In Bolton’s hands, you knew it would be a realistic portrayal with an outlandish element.
As with the aforementioned sexism, the introduction of the witches is down played and unfolds organically. They influence the story and maintain an element of mysticism but it is not rammed in your face.

The present day setting provides a nice contrast to the characters we have come to know and love. In the thirty years which have transpired some of the characters have changed whilst others have inevitably matured. Florence, for example, is no longer a confident, eager woman and now has a son to look out and care for.

Her doubts over the case and her incessant need to discover the truth, cause her to expose old wounds which were painful for many. All this leads to a conclusion which is gripping, if a little unsatisfying. In regards to the plot, the story is wrapped up nicely and I can honestly say I enjoyed it, however, there were several outstanding questions which I will not put in the review for risk of spoilers.
All in all, the Craftsman is another fantastic novel from Sharon Bolton. I love my novels dark, gothic and suspenseful and this one ticks all of those boxes.

My rating: 9.0