Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (2016, Orbit)

Jack Sparks is the literary equivalent of a shock-jock – a loud, vulgar, offensive sociopath; always scheming and lying, and who lacks care and empathy. What drives him is his ego and its massaging by his fans and followers on every form of social media channel. His latest venture is 'Jack Sparks on the Supernatural' a book in which he sets out to debunk religion, the afterlife and the paranormal. His journey starts with an exorcism in Italy, which he interrupts by laughing at what he sees as an absurd, staged act. What follows is a series of increasingly creepy happenings, including a strange, haunting video with no provenance that appears on his YouTube channel that then disappears. Jack is determined to discover who made the video in order to prove it’s a hoax, using it as a means to gather content for his book as he meets with a combat magician and a group of paranormal investigators. But the more he tries to disprove the supernatural, the more it seems like it might exist, and it all seems to be leading to his inevitable death.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks follows the slow descent of a loutish, egotistical author as he tries to disprove the supernatural in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. The story is told through the book notes of Jack Sparks, collated and edited by his brother, who also intersperses the text with other evidence, such as letters and audio transcript. Sparks is somewhat of an unreliable narrator who is determined to both shock readers and favourably script his own portrayal. He travels from Italy to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, pursued by the consequences of an exorcism he disrupted and prevented. He creates antagonism and resentment, and in his wake leaves a trail of destruction. By mid-way through it’s clear where the story is heading, though there is still plenty of intrigue, twists and gore. While it’s billed as a dark comedy, the humour fell a little flat for me, in part because it is all rooted in the awfulness of Jack Sparks, a character with no redeeming features who is loathsome throughout. The story is well constructed and told, but I can’t say I enjoyed the characters or story very much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of Early One Morning by Robert Ryan (2002, Headline)

The mid-1920s, William Grover-Williams flees Ireland and his life as an IRA get-a-way driver to France. There he gets work as a chauffeur for William Orpen, an Irish artist whose muse and mistress is Eve Aubicq. Williams and Aubicq start an affair and marry, and she seed-finances his foray into racing cars. A natural driver, he is soon driving for Bugatti in grand prixs with his team mate and rival, Robert Benoist, a former First World War fighter ace. Benoist, Williams and Aubicq form a close friendship at and away from race circuits. When the Second World War starts Williams heads for England where he enlists, before being recruited into SOE. He’s then dropped back into France, reuniting with his wife and setting up a resistance network with Benoist and fellow racing driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille. As they build their network and start to undertake actions, the German SD are closing in, determined to put a halt to their work.

Early One Morning is a fictionalised account of the true story of William Grover-Williams, Eve Aubicq and Robert Benoist. Built around Williams, the tale covers from the mid-20s to the end of the war, with a separate thread tracing Williams’ SOE handler still seeking answers many years later. The main focus is the war years, especially Williams’ recruitment and training for SOE, his drop back into France and his work building a network with Benoist, and subsequent capture and internment in France and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As with all such fictionalised accounts of real people and events there is always a question as to the extent to which the author has taken artistic license with history, and undoubtedly Ryan has filled in detail – speculating on dialogue and action, and altering timelines for dramatic effect. But the broad arc seems roughly faithful, detailing the daring lives of two racing drivers and one of their wives. A little bit of a slow burner, the book picks up pace, intrigue and emotional resonance as it progresses. Overall, an interesting and engaging read.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Unusually for me I've started three books in a row where I've got fifty pages in and put the book to one side. I think I'll eventually finish all three, but I'm just not in the right mood for them right now. I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for, but perhaps it's Don Winslow's The Force, as that's next on the list.

My posts this week
Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox
Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
One job

Saturday, November 10, 2018

One job

Clarke hit the wet pavement like a breaching whale.

Miller followed him down, three bullets thwacking into the building entranceway.

His boss was missing the crown of his skull.


A pointless question asked as he scuttled into the lee of a parked car.

Somehow his gun had appeared in his hand, but his instinct was flight not fight.

A smattering of bullets peppered the car.

The most obvious paths to safety were back into the building, or bolt left or right. Instead, he sprinted across the road.

He’d one job, yet the mayor was dead.

So, it was fight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox (2017, Doubleday)

Aidan Waits is a disgraced copper, suspended and unsure if he has a future in the police. His boss though has a possible route back which involves exploiting the situation: Waits can go undercover, trying to enter the inner circle of Zain Carver, a major player in Manchester’s criminal world. A disillusioned, dishonest ex-policeman with a drug and drink problem is liable to drift into Carver’s orbit. The task can double-up with a mission for a government minister whose daughter has become a siren for Carver, a party girl being groomed to collect drug payments. Carver though is no ordinary criminal – he has brains, charm and his own man in the police. And Isabelle Rossiter has no desire to be reunited with her father; in fact, Waits suspects she might have good reason to have run. Carver’s world is no place for a young girl though as women in his harem tend to end up dead. Waits is quickly out of his depth, unable to trust anyone – his boss and fellow police officers, the minister, Carver and his coterie, and himself – and he’s not sure if and whether he wants to survive. Deep-down though he wants justice and he’s prepared to play all sides to try and attain it.

Sirens is a dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget, bought-up in the care system. He has a future that is seemingly going nowhere having badly messed up his police career. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld, persuade a government minister’s daughter to return home, and uncover Zain Carver’s man in the police. It’s a suicide mission, but Waits has nothing to lose. A man on the edge – disgraced, disillusioned, dishonest – he’s out of control and reckless. Aiding and avenging Carver’s sirens – Cath, Sarah-Jane and the newest recruit, Isabelle, the politician’s daughter – seems worth the risks. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along. Full of twists and turns and tension it catapults the reader through the seedy and violent underbelly of the city, the drug-filled hedonism of the night-life, and the criminal gangs and their rivalry that supply the highs and lows. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Waits is the perfect guide to this world, a fallen policeman who fits into the scene but can’t give up the notion of justice, even if it’s his own brand rather than defined by the law. While it could have been a fairly simple plot, Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan (Zaffre, 2018)

Winter, 1917. Lord Highmount, a weapons manufacturer has organized a gathering at Blackwater Abbey, his home on a Devonshire island, to try and make contact with his two sons killed in the trenches. Present are his wife and daughter, two spiritualists, a doctor and his patient who is suffering from shell-shock, his industrialist friend and his wife who have a son missing in action, an officer who works in the Ordnance Dept, and the abbey’s servants. Asked to attend by British intelligence are Captain Donovan, chaser and fixer of spies, and Kate Cartwright, daughter of the guest industrialist and former fiancée to the officer, who works in Naval codes and is also able to see ghosts. They’re job is to try and identify who has been passing on secret military intelligence to the Germans. Not long after the guests arrive a storm closes in cutting the island off and strange and sinister occurrences start to happen leading to murder. Donovan and Kate struggle to make sense of the unfolding events, especially since they seem to be chasing ghosts.

In A House of Ghosts Ryan mashes together elements of a golden age country house crime tale, a ghost story, and an espionage thriller. Using a classic setup, he isolates his characters in a house on an island, using the weather as means to trap them there. The house is an old abbey and is haunted by centuries worth of inhabitants, is riddled with secret passages, and has its upstairs-downstairs politics of servants and owners/guests. Among the guests are two spiritualists, a doctor whose shell-shocked patient can converse with the dead, and a woman who can see ghosts. They are there to conduct a séance and talk to their relatives killed in the trenches. One of the guests is also a German agent and two have been sent to capture the spy. The guests are all friends of the host Lord Highmount and have various interconnections, and the servants have their own agendas and linkages. The two main protagonists are Captain Donovan, an Irishman working for British intelligence, and Kate Cartwright, who is to aid him winkle out the spy. Two likeable characters, they immediately form a bond that extends beyond a working relationship. Ryan uses the set-up to good effect, with skulduggery mixing with ghostly happenings, and friends starting to turn on each other. The result is a story that rattles along, with plenty of intrigue and action. I was expecting it to be a bit more creepy and haunting and the identity of the spy master is no great mystery. However, the other happenings are not quite so clear, keeping the reader guessing about some elements of the tale. I imagine this is opening of a series featuring Donovan and Kate, or at least I’m hoping it is. Overall, an engaging, entertaining tale that harks back to the golden age of crime fiction.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

In anticipation of a trip to Taiwan I've been trying to track down some crime fiction set there. I've managed to order Ghost Month by Ed Lin and Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari. If anyone has any other recommendations for Taiwan-based tales, then I'd be grateful to hear about them.

Posts this week:
Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile
October reads
Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Kathleen drew a key across the bonnet, gouging the paint.

‘Are you crazy?’ Emily tried to pull her away.

‘He’s feckin’ two-timing me.’ Kathleen shrugged off her friend; scratched again.

‘He’ll kill you, you daft bitch.’

‘Fuck him.’ A heel folded under her ankle and she fell to one side.

‘Jesus. You’re wasted.’ Emily tried to drag her up.

‘Fucker!’ The stone thumped into the headlight; the car alarm wailed.


‘Fucker.’ She tried to stand, tears ruining her mascara.

‘Come-on, let’s go.’

They fled arm-in-arm.

Behind them Ryan shouted: ‘Fucking bitch!’

‘Next time I’ll scratch your fucking eyes out!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile (2017, Legend Press)

Rescued by an Irish aid worker, Theo arrived in Ireland from Rwanda aged seven. Aged twenty two and with an engineering degree, the financial crisis means he cannot find suitable work. Instead he takes up a job working in a restaurant kitchen and sells drugs for a criminal gang. At the restaurant he meets Deirdre, a middle-aged woman with three kids, and the pair form an unlikely friendship. Both are struggling to make a place in the world they are happy with. Theo is haunted by his childhood memories and is looking for a way out of the drugs trade. Deirdre wants an end to her domestic abuse but is too afraid and resigned to leave. When Theo’s friend Neville, the boyfriend of Deirdre’s daughter, Grace, is given a punishment beating by the criminal gang that Theo deals for, it provides the catalyst for change. But change comes with a heavy cost that neither is sure they want to pay.

Rain really does fall on everyone in Clár Ni Chonghaile’s tale of identity and belonging in situations of violence. Set in Dublin, the tale focuses on the life of Theo, a young man bought up in Dublin after being rescued from the Rwandan genocide, and his friendship with Deirdre, a middle-aged woman living with domestic abuse. Theo is somewhat of a lost soul who finds solace in the Irish language and poetry and deals drugs for a criminal gang to get by. Deirdre has resigned herself to living with the violence of her husband. Their lives become intricately interwoven through two key events centred on Theo’s best friend, Neville, that forces them both to confront their past and their future. Ni Chonghaile’s tale is a carefully crafted slice of social realism. It is shot through with empathy and pathos, but it is not for the faint-hearted with its scenes and discussion of domestic abuse, genocide, gang violence, suicide, and racism. These are not glorified, but rather form an everyday backdrop to ordinary people living difficult lives. The characterisation, character development across the story, social interactions and sense of place are excellent, and the whole tale has a deep-sense of believability to it. I can’t say it was a joyous or entertaining read, but it was certainly engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.