Spook Street by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb 4)

spook street mick herronWhat happens to spies when they get old? This is the intriguing question posed by Spook Street. Former senior spy David Cartwright is showing the early signs of dementia. He wanders round his village in his pyjamas, convinced that the flickering streetlights are a code, and that the local shopkeeper’s small talk is an interrogation. What might he reveal in his confusion?

His grandson, River Cartwright, is one of the misfit spies exiled to Slough House under Jackson Lamb (the so-called Slow Horses). He is concerned about his grandfather and wants to take care of him before the Service move to ‘take care of him’ in another sense.

At first I found it hard to orient myself in the present day, particularly as this was my introduction to Slough House. I’m a big fan of John le Carré and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was back in the world of Smiley. The grotty building, the sluggish central heating, the air of ennui, the animal terminology (stoats and horses rather than moles) – Even the cadence of the prose echoes le Carré. It’s only the references to technology that hurtle you back to the present day.

But this is more than Smiley with iPods. I soon warmed (if that’s the right word) to the Slow Horses. They are flawed but clever, unlikeable to varying degrees (likeability is, in my view, a much-overrated quality in a fictional character) but always interesting.

One way Spook Street differs from le Carré is that no one here seems to much believe in anything. In Smiley’s world, people are motivated at times by principle, even if they’re not the principles they’re supposed to have. Here the ambitious are motivated by their own power and status, while the employees at Slough House seem to have enough to do just to make it through the day.

A lot of contemporary spy fiction, and crime in general, seems to be high in concept and low in substance. Fast food for the eyeball, with clockwork characters marching through the obligatory twists. This is the opposite. The plot is the plot, and is probably best not examined too closely, but the prose is rich and satisfying and funny in the darkness and bleak in the light. There are complex, grown up characters and a world in Slough House that may owe a debt to le Carré but clearly has a life of its own. A world that lives and breathes and which you are sure is still there when you have stopped reading. I’ll definitely be back.

I received a copy of Spook Street from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Spook Street on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my crime novel Recognition – 99p/99c on Kindle till Sunday 2 July on Amazon

A child’s evidence convicted him – what if she was wrong?

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Thank you!

The launch for The Former Chief Executive is finished. It’s been a hectic time but it couldn’t have gone any better!

I’m really grateful to the bloggers and reviewers who reviewed The Former Chief Executive or hosted a guest post (and everyone who shared or commented). Here’s a list in date order:

The Former Chief Executive by Kate Vane wordpressEP Clark

Ashrae

Hair Past a Freckle

Pace, amore, libri

Rather Too Fond of Books (guest post)

What Cathy Read Next

Literary Flits

Swirl and Thread (guest post)

Alison Williams Writing

Women Writers (guest post)

I also want to say thanks again to Ilaria Rosselli del Turco who allowed me to use her lovely painting ‘Head of Woman in Green Kimono’ for the cover.

Now I just need to write the next book!

The Former Chief Executive is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle

 

No Good Deed by John Niven

no good deed by john nivenNo Good Deed has the perfect elevator pitch: Alan, a successful, affluent journalist with a happy family life, stops to give some money to a homeless man one night on the way to his club in Soho. The man turns out to be his old school friend, Craig. Alan feels obliged to help him and takes him home. But Craig, far from being grateful, proceeds to take over Alan’s life…

Too often these high-concept stories are peopled by flat characters and hackneyed plots, but in this case the novel does live up to its promise. Alan’s milieu – a kind of Notting Hill set without the (overt) politics, peopled by columnists and aristos and minor celebs, fuelled by nepotism and booze and lots of lots of money, is richly and satirically drawn.

Alan is an interesting character, an outsider from a council house in Scotland who has somehow found himself married to the daughter of a duke. He is both insider and outsider on his world, comfortable in it but painfully aware of its privilege and absurdities, which are heightened when he sees it through Craig’s eyes.

There are some funny set pieces in this novel (and plenty on the protagonist’s complex relationship with his bowels, surely an under-explored area in contemporary fiction) but what marks it out for me is its study of friendship. Alan was the not-quite-cool kid in his crowd, while Craig was the leader. Craig went on to be a rock star while Alan was a struggling reporter until his wife’s connections got him a decent job.

No Good Deed explores the darker side of friendship, the way the dynamics of your teenage years, at that age when friends mean more than family or bands or even sex, can influence you as you go through life. The plot wraps up neatly, as you’d expect from such a deftly plotted novel, but it also leaves you room to think about why the characters behaved the way they did, which makes it a thought-provoking as well an entertaining read.

I received a copy of No Good Deed from the publisher via Netgalley.
View No Good Deed on Goodreads

Noah’s Ark by Barbara Trapido

noah's ark by barbara trapidoThis is the story of a marriage but it is also a clever study of power.

Ali Bobrow, artistic, beautiful and unworldly, is easy prey to controlling men. Her third husband, Noah, is at least a benign dictator. Before him she was mistreated, her daughter was unhappy and she was unable to resist the demands of any manipulative neighbour or acquaintance. Noah, a doctor, the ultimate protector, replaces the chaos with love, calm and security – so long as she follows his rules.

Then one day Ali decides to rebel – and this disrupts the delicate balance of her life with Noah, and leads her to look back at her past in South Africa.

Trapido’s characters are funny and vivid and clever. You feel like you want to climb into her world (though probably not for too long – who could keep up?). She creates atmosphere with economy and style. The opening scene shows Ali sewing in her kitchen, an icon of domesticity. The apparently ordinary items – the fruit bowl, the pinboard – and her thoughts about them immediately evoke the family and her place within it.

There are other types of power here. Ali grew up under apartheid, the descendant of German refugees from World War Two. Her best friend at school was Jewish, and she is attracted to Jewish men. Her unconsummated first love was dark-skinned and was rumoured to have lied about his background to attend the all-white university.

There are also the dynamics between parents and children. Noah’s step-daughter, once so timid, is able to be rebellious and demanding precisely because he has made her feel safe – for now. He is also confronted by the stubbornness of his own daughter.

How do we respond to a world where every day people are harming others? Trapido asks subtle questions about the limits of power, resistance and compassion.

View Noah’s Ark on Goodreads

Launching!

The Former Chief Executive is published tomorrow.

This is the first time I’ve had a formal launch plan for a novel. In the past I’ve published first and then run around trying to promote later but I’ve learnt that’s not the best way to do things!

It hasn’t all gone to plan. As I excitedly posted my cover reveal, Twitter went crazy. Not for me though, for Prime Minister Theresa May. She was announcing a General Election to be held on 8 June, the date I had set for publication. So, it’s been an odd time, the personal and political, hopes and fears, running side by side.

I’m really grateful to the bloggers and reviewers who’ve agreed to review The Former Chief Executive or to host a guest post. I will post links here as they come in.

The Former Chief Executive by Kate Vane wordpressEP Clark

Ashrae

Hair Past a Freckle

Pace, amore, libri

Rather Too Fond of Books

What Cathy Read Next

Literary Flits

Swirl and Thread

Alison Williams Writing

Women Writers

I’m incredibly lucky that Ilaria Rosselli del Turco allowed me to use her painting ‘Head of Woman in Green Kimono’ for the cover.

I’ve had to cultivate patience over the last few weeks when part of me wanted to just get on with it, but the wait is finally over. So now it is for the people to decide…

The Former Chief Executive is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle

 

The Red Hill by David Penny

the red hill david pennyMy prelaunch tension means I have been struggling to read fiction lately but The Red Hill turned out to be just the immersive experience I needed.

It is the first in a planned ten-part series which covers the decade leading up to the fall of Granada to Isabel and Fernando (or Isabella and Ferdinand) in 1492. Thomas Berrington is an Englishman with a complex backstory, some of which is revealed in this book. He is an accomplished surgeon, equally in demand on the battlefield and at court. When the Sultan asks him to investigate a series of murders, he would rather continue with his surgical work, but how do you refuse a man who can have you decapitated on a whim? He enlists his friend Jorge, a eunuch from the harem.

The Red Hill gives you a vivid sense of the culture of Moorish Andalucia. It takes in everything from medicine to religion to the intrigues of the harem. There is great chemistry between the serious and thoughtful Thomas and the handsome, playful Jorge, and there are a number of colourful minor characters. I have spent some time in Granada and it was particularly enjoyable to revisit familiar locations through their eyes and to imagine the Alhambra as it would have been at that time.

You get a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the Moorish world. But always in the background is the threat from Spain, reports of battles on an ever-shifting border. Our knowledge that this is a world which will soon end, knowledge which of course the protagonists don’t have (though some see the possibility) gives the book an added poignancy.

The Red Hill ends pleasingly as it both wraps up the plot and sends Thomas’ life in a new direction, setting things up for the rest of the series. Occasionally I felt that Berrington’s thoughts were over-explained, or the dialogue a bit wordy, especially as the tension was building towards the end. However this is a small price to pay for such an enjoyable and engaging story. When I finished this book I immediately bought the next two in the series, which says it all.

View The Red Hill on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with David Penny on the Self Publishing Journeys podcast.

Who cares for the widows and orphans? and other thoughts on self-publishing a paperback

Dan_Leno_Dressed_for_the_ParkI have a confession to make. I don’t much care about physical books (cue mass unfollowing). I don’t love the smell of new paper or the cracking of the spine. I like ebooks because they’re instantly available and portable and because I’ve reached the age where I look at a book’s font size before I read the blurb. I have one bookcase and when it’s full I scoop up a handful of the dust-gatherers and take them to the charity shop.

However, I have realised that, as in most areas of life, I am out of step with public opinion. People still love the book as artefact. Readers of literary fiction, in particular, like them to have and to hold, to cherish and even to read. For many, the sensation of holding the book, the cover image, the way you can see it in your mind’s eye and link it to the context in which you read it, all form part of the reading experience.

So, I accepted the inevitable and decided to publish my new novel, The Former Chief Executive, in paperback. And because my life is not stressful enough already, I decided to do a paperback of my last novel, Not the End, at the same time.

Of course I dramatically underestimated the work involved. I’ve formatted my own ebooks, so how complicated could it be to do a paperback? This brings us onto the vexed question of widows and orphans. I’d vaguely heard the term but hadn’t thought too much about what it meant till now. For those who are still in that blissful state of ignorance, briefly orphans are first lines of a paragraph at the end of a page, and widows the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page. (In all the years I’ve been reading books I’ve never stopped to notice these, although I was dimly aware that you don’t see hyphens splitting words over two lines like you used to.)

There is much debate about whether you should even bother to address widows and orphans. Some argue that the remedial steps taken (minutely condensing or expanding the text of the offending paragraph until you can force it into shape) could be just as unsightly. Others say that familiarity with ebooks means that people are used to a more fluid attitude to page layout.

Others argue that the effort of making these changes is unnecessary, because most readers won’t notice. However there will always be one person who will write a scathing review if you get it wrong (this is how I learnt that back matter should start on a right-hand page, thankfully before I committed mine to the left).

Once you decide to take action, you then find there are different standards about what must be changed (even the revered Chicago Manual of Style now says that orphans are acceptable, though widows are not). In the end I followed the advice of this excellent article by Christine Michaels. Widows were dispatched without mercy, while orphans were allowed to plead their case.

tfce and nte covers reducedIt made me wonder how many other traditions are being eroded by changing technology. Many ebook authors (myself included) don’t bother with an ISBN, although the official advice of the Alliance of Independent Authors is that you should have one for each format of your book. And the distinctions between editions and reprints and revised editions are breaking down. With an ebook, or even a print-on-demand paperback, you can easily pop in and change the cover or make a few amendments to the text whereas with a traditionally published book you’re stuck with it till the next print run.

One thing I love about being an independent author is that I’m always learning something new. Even if you don’t do the work yourself (I’ve finally seen the wisdom of getting professionally designed covers) you still need to know enough to ask the right questions (I can now throw around terms like ‘spine width’ and ‘bleed’ and ‘gutter’ with at least a semblance of knowing what I’m talking about).

Now I have my books. I must admit that there is something nice about holding them in your hands. And if I’m ever on TV, I will be able to stand in front of my bookcase looking earnest, with my novels strategically arranged to be in full view. And that is surely the best use for a physical book (just kidding).

The Former Chief Executive is published on 8 June in paperback and Kindle and is available for pre-order. Not the End is on sale now.

*** After I’d finished my books (of course), I learnt that Reedsy has a free formatting tool. I haven’t used it, so can’t vouch for it, but will certainly be taking a look before I publish my next book.***