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Book eighteen: The Secret Broker #Crane

On first appearance Luca Voss is nothing more than an international playboy.  A fan of fast cars, gadgets and beautiful women.  But, underneath lies a highly skilled and trained secret agent in the employ of the ancient and secretive Seven Families.  When two of Voss’ colleagues including the lead agent “The Broker” are murdered he sets out to find out what they were working on and fights against the clock to prevent an international emergency.

From the opening chapter, when a Japanese ship is commandeered by mercenaries, kidnapping their smuggled passengers, I was hooked.  I had read that this was a must read for fans of John le Carre.  I’m actually not a fan of his, having read a few of his books I find them very slow, intellectually confusing and I get lost in the secrets like a child in Hampton Court Maze.  The Secret Broker is none of these things, it is fast paced, full of twists and turns and quick reveals.  You can read the entire book in the time in take le Carre’s character to order a drink at the bar.   So, if you’re a fan of le Carre maybe give it a miss but if you’re a fan of more modern mystery filled thrillers by the likes of Steve Berry, Chris Kuzneski and Raymond Khoury then this has to go on your to read list.

As a debut novel The Secret Broker is well written, Crane has done his research and his portrayal of the international political climate whilst manipulated to make his story is believable.  Similarly the back story to the power of the Seven Families is intriguing but not ludicrous ensuring the conspiracy doesn’t take over the book.

There is still some development of characters to be done and I hope to see more depth and consistency should the characters continue in subsequent books.  Voss is highly dependent on his assistance and lover JJ.  Whilst her power of seduction is key to her role, I don’t think the “romping” scenes with Voss and other characters brings much to the book.  If anything it made it feel dated,  a scene written to titillate the older male reader maybe?

The Secret Broker will not test your intelligence nor stimulate debate but like a good action film if you’re willing to suspend reality for a short period it’s a fantastic thriller with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing till the end.

I hope to see more of Luca Voss and the Seven Families in the future.

You can buy the book here


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Book seventeen: Undertow #Heathcote

Carmen a freelance journalist is married to Tom a city lawyer.  Happily married they balance their London life with weekends in Norfolk spending time with Tom’s three children from his previous marriage to Laura.  A marriage broken up not by Carmen but by the beautiful Zena who drowned swimming in the sea.  Content with life and planning a family of their own, Carmen’s world is thrown into a tailspin when a chance meeting with a young man at the train station makes her question Tom’s involvement in Zena’s accident.  Can she trust Tom? Can she stay with him? Is she safe?

Undertow is a well-paced psychological thriller which kept me guessing up until the last few chapters.  It’s not a perfect plotline, there are some holes and some elements of it are hard to believe but these are minor things and in no way did they stop me wanting to read on.

I think part of my attraction to the book was that I really warmed to the character of Carmen and the complexity of her relationships.  With her mother, step mother and half-brother she is the rock, the person they all turn to and she has to be strong for them.  I really believe that when someone has to be so strong for others, masking any unhappiness in their own life it can leave them vulnerable.  In Carmen this vulnerability manifests itself in her personal relationships, she seems to be naturally attracted to the bad boys.  Prior to Tom she had one long-term relationship with Nick, an actor, we don’t know many details about their relationship but what is revealed is not good.  The only assumption I could make for why she stayed with him so long was that Carmen’s fear of being alone was possibly greater than her unhappiness and it took Nick cheating on her multiple times for her to find the strength to end it.

Carmen is a very capable character, she owns her own flat and has had a successful career yet she needs to be needed and rather than enjoy her new found independence after breaking away from Nick it is a relatively short period of time before she starts dating Tom.  Within months they marry and he moves into her flat.  When she is made redundant from her journalism job, Tom reassures her that she doesn’t need to work, that he earns enough money for them both and Carmen is convinced to become a stay at home freelance journalist. Without her realising it Tom is ensuring Carmen is dependent on him and that they live their lives according to his likes.

There is nothing likeable about the character of Tom.  He is a manifestation of everything bad about city workers.  Confident, smooth, manipulative, aggressive, dismissive of others, Tom likes to be in control.  In the early chapters Heathcote reveals Tom’s arrogant quick tempered natured and seeing this side of him makes it easy for us to believe that he may have killed his lover Zena.  As the story unfolds we are shown a different more vulnerable side, Tom is fiercely loyal to those he loves, carries tremendous guilt over his affair and its impact on his family and needs Carmen to balance him. And yet, I still couldn’t bring myself to like him, I couldn’t empathise with him and I actual felt he used his vulnerability to manipulate Carmen.

The book opens with Zena’s washed up body being found on the beach in Norfolk. A cold soulless death is portrayed, the vibrant life of a young girl taken by the heartless sea.  We then skip forward three years, having died in a tragic accident, Tom’s ex-lover has never given Carmen much cause for thought but when the accidental nature of her death is questioned the ghost of Zena very quickly gets under Carmen’s skin.  For Carmen there are too many unknowns, she realises she knows very little of relationship Tom had with Zena.  How did they meet, who pursued who, why did he leave Laura for her, was she happy with her new role of “step mum”, had she already set her sights on a new target?  In trying to get to the heart of the matter Carmen meets and talks with people from Zena’s past, each one talks of her beauty, she grasp of life and determination to get what she wanted.  She is without a doubt portrayed as a black widow using her beauty to enrapture men and manipulate situations for her gain.  The reader is given no opportunity to sympathise or feel sorry for Zena.  Carmen does not go down the rabbit hole to lay Zena to rest, to get justice for her, to allow her to rest in peace.  Carmen must solve the mystery to know who the man she married is.

Reading Undertow I felt like I was joining Carmen on a journey.  Once the seed of doubt about Tom’s involvement in Zena’s death has been planted it takes hold of Carmen and she will risk everything, including her relationship with Tom to find the truth.  Without giving away too much of the plot there are some fantastic twists and turns, I swung from believing Tom definitely did it, to it being an accident, to it being someone else multiple times.  But I did feel some elements of the story were weak in conviction.  Carmen’s brother meeting someone who had worked with Zena was a tenuous plot line, Zena’s mother welcoming Carmen in to her home and talking so openly about her daughter with a stranger was less than believable and the Family Liaison Officer who had worked the case discussing details just seemed implausible.  But these things can be forgiven and overlooked for plot development purposes.

My main gripe with the storyline is the gap after Carmen leaves Tom. Having given him every opportunity to tell her exactly what happened and feeling like the distance between her and her husband can’t be reconciled Carmen leaves Tom and goes to stay with her mother.  In the next chapter we have jumped forward two months, and they’re back together.  Whilst a conversation with Kieran, her step-brother, is used to explain the reconciliation it just felt lacking in substance.  She may not have thought him guilty but she did not believe his total innocence and left because she could not continue with the doubt and second guessing.  How are they reconciled without discussing that more? Carmen becomes stronger and stronger throughout this quest for truth and it is difficult to believe she would have so easily reunited with Tom.

At its heart Undertow is a who dunnit.  Whilst Tom is the main suspect Heathcote dangles other possible suspects, Zena’s spurned lovers, Tom’s ex-wife or maybe it simply was a tragic accident.  But, the book is also about a journey, sometimes we have to face the darkest moments in life and in people to realise what we want and what we need.  This book is not about finding peace for Zena, but is about finding peace for Carmen.

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Book sixteen: The Sunflower Cottage Breakfast Club #James

Emily Reed is a confident career driven young woman chasing her next promotion when her parents drop a bombshell on her…the father she has known for twenty-five years isn’t her real dad.  Reeling from the discovery she decides the only thing to do is travel from her home city of Glasgow to the small Yorkshire coastal village of Luna Bay in search of her biological father.  If that personal quest wasn’t enough her boss sets her a challenge, to sign the small independent B&B Sunflower Cottage up to their hotel chain.

I so wanted to love this book, but I didn’t.  The premise is good and the main character is well developed and likeable but there were some of things I couldn’t overlook which took away any enjoyment.  At the start of the book a big thing is made of Emily’s long lost biological father, the letters he wrote to her, her need to go and meet him and yet once she arrives in Luna Bay it very quickly takes second place to the romance.  The story of her connecting with her father becomes a sub-plot lost within the book, I couldn’t help but think its only purpose was to give Emily a reason to go to Luna Bay rather than being something the author wanted to explore and develop.

My main issue however is with the crux of the story, the romance.  I can’t quite put my finger on what is wrong with the interaction between Emily and Noah but I felt uncomfortable reading it.  The banter didn’t quite ring true and the pace of their relationship going from dislike and annoyance to flirtation and near on love was too quick in my opinion.  I know people have whirlwind romances but this just didn’t see realistic.  I also didn’t like the narrative style, taken from Emily’s viewpoint there are too many cliché teen romance phrasings that made me cringe as I read them.

“…leaving me to wonder how such a beautiful moment could’ve happened in a life like mine”.

Whilst perfectly pitched for some I had hoped for something a bit more sophisticated and subtle.

Once Emily and Noah get past the bickering, the blowing hot and cold with each other and just get on with the romance I found the book a bit easier to read but if I’m honest there isn’t much substance left to the book by that point.  The twist in the signing over of Sunflower Cottage to the hotel chain Emily works for was all too predictable.  And, whilst I’m all for suspending reality in books I have to say I’m unconvinced that her grand plan to save the B&B would work in the real corporate world!

I’m sure many people will read, enjoy and love this and the other books by Lynsey James; and I wish I could have as I really liked the concept but sadly this book just wasn’t for me.


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Book fifteen: House of Secrets #Stacey

Madeline and her daughter Poppy live with Madeline’s boyfriend Liam O’Grady.  A fairy tale romance has turned sour, Madeline lives on the edge wondering when Liam’s mood will next change and fears for her daughter as she becomes more withdrawn in Liam’s presence.  After discovering Liam cheating with his boss, Madeline decides enough is enough and leaves him to go and live at Wrea Head Hall the hotel owned by her father.  As Madeline makes new friends and starts to discover the history and secrets of Wrea Head Hall she begins to imagine a brighter future but Liam has very different plans.]

Warning this review has spoilers    

This debut novel by Lynda Stacey shows great promise.  The stories are enjoyable and the characters likeable, she has a good rhythm to her writing and can paint pictures in your mind of her settings.  Sadly, whilst there were things to enjoy about this book I also felt parts of the story were rushed, the storylines clashed and it was very easy to see how the book was going to end.

As a fan of the radio two serial drama the Archers fan I was immediately hooked as Stacey laid the foundations for Madeline and Liam’s relationship in the first couple of chapters.  I was preparing to settle down to a thrilling but slightly uncomfortable story of manipulation and power struggles reminiscence of the current Helen Archer and Rob Titchener saga.  On that front I’m sorry to say House of Secrets did not live up to my expectations.

I think my main issue with this book is that in some ways it feels like two books in one competing for the author’s attention.  The Liam O’Grady storyline given more development would make a fantastic suspense filled thriller, kidnapping, torture, murders by the charming Irish man would be a real page turner.  In O’Grady Stacey has created a compelling psychopath, the mystery surrounding his parents, the locked up rooms in his house, his long-term obsession with Madeline – these are things great thrillers are made of.  The reader is intrigued, we want to know more about him, even if we have to read it from behind a pillow.

The pacing of the book is also off for me.  I would expect to have snippets of Liam’s behaviour revealed to us, we should question his involvement in “accidents” unsure of whether he was responsible or is the author showing us a red herring.  Instead, too much is laid bare too soon.  Madeline suspicious of nothing has an epiphany after one threatening encounter is suddenly putting all the pieces together, it just happens too quickly.

In the other half of the book we have a brilliant romantic mystery, comparable with the works of Kate Morton.  The finding of a diary which gives us insight to the lives of those living in the hall during World War II, secret passages and rooms, blossoming relationships, the Wrea Head Hall storyline is thoughtfully developed and like a period drama is a pleasure to get lost in.  But again, Stacey reveals too much too quickly.  They mystery of the book should be what links Emily Ennis to the current residents of the hall, who was Eddie, what happened to their child and yet quite early on in the story it is revealed that Bandit’s father talks of walking through tunnels and going to see the lady in the hall.  It does not take a genius to put the pieces together and in a moment the storyline unravels before us leaving no surprises.

One of the things I did enjoy in this book was the characters Stacey has created and the way she crafts the relationships between them.  In particular I felt the portrayal of the reunion between Madeline and her father was perfectly captured.  The awkwardness on both sides, the longing for closeness, the bond that even years apart cannot dampen.  In Bandit, the hero of the book, Stacey has created a dark and brooding damaged man, the type of man we all dream about, the one that just needs us to fix him.  Snippets of his previous army life add depth to him and his link to the hall and the estate gives a spiritual element.  Madeline herself is also a character you warm to, you see strength in her particular when it comes to protecting her daughter Poppy.  And yet there is also a sense of vulnerability, something that could have more made of it had the story focused more on O’Grady’s manipulation and obsession.

Whilst I found this book to be a clash of stories and styles there is enough in there to make me give future books by Stacey a read.


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Book fourteen: A Boy Made of Blocks #Stuart

If you’re a fan of Nick Hornby and David Nicholls you will love this book.

The book follows Alex, a thirty-something year old as he deals with the breakdown of his marriage to Jody, the reality of having a son, Sam, with autism and a whole manner of other life crises.  Having hidden from Sam’s diagnosis behind work when Alex is made redundant and takes more responsibility for Sam’s childcare he is forced to reconsider how to connect with his son.  Together they find a world within Minecraft where they can communicate and bond.

A Boy Made of Blocks is a humorous and heart-warming story.  You immediately warm to Alex and whilst he sometimes leaves you wanting to bang your head against a brick wall at times with his hopeless outlook on life, you also find yourself championing him and cheering when things go right.

Written by journalist Keith Stuart the book is based on his own experience of playing Minecraft with his autistic son Zac.  Stuart’s understanding of the frustrations, worries and celebrations of parents of a child with autism brings so much empathy and depth to this story.  This book may reflect Stuart’s journey to connect with Zac via videogames but in creating such a carefully well-developed character as Sam Stuart displays to us his love and understanding of his own son.

A Boy Made of Blocks is tender but not soft.  We’re taken on an emotional journey as Alex rebuilds his relationships but also as Sam develops.  I found myself wanting to hold him and make it better when the world around him got to be too much but I also sat smiling to myself on more than one occasion when Sam opened up showing his sensitivity to and observations of the world and people around him.  Whilst the premise of this book is about Alex’s attempt to reinvent his life Sam is as much a key player and I think one of the most touching things is how having the time and attention of his father helps Sam to bloom.

The father-son relationship is very much the focus of this book with other characters playing supportive roles.  Jody, Dan, Emma, Matt, Clare – they all feel like return extras in a soap opera.  We know a little about them but we never get their storyline they just feature in the main story of Alex and Sam.  However, that is not necessarily a criticism as I fully believe Alex and Sam are all this book needs.

A Boy Made of Blocks made me laugh, it made me smile and at the very end it gave me goose bumps and a tear in my eye.  This is a story that is filled with vulnerability, nervousness and love, emotions that feature in all of our lives whether we have a Sam or not.  I think there is something special about a book when an author pours a little bit of their life into it and you can tell when reading this book that the characters and the story mean something to Stuart.  They are a part of him and when you’ve finished reading you feel like they’re a part of you too.


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Book thirteen: Watchmen #Moore #Gibbons

As discussed in an earlier blog Watchmen is the first graphic novel I’ve read.  Whilst I quickly got use to the format, finding it much easier and engaging than I had initially expected, I did struggle with getting my head around the story.  Unlike most novels there was no summary of the story available on the back cover and whilst my husband tried to give me a brief introduction I felt quite in the dark for the first few chapters.

So, having read it, what is it about?

Originally written as a series of comic books in 1986 and 1987 Watchmen is set in 1980s America, mostly true to the real world in setting but this one has superheroes who fight crime.  Although referred to as superheroes all bar one of them, Doctor Manhattan, are in fact just highly skilled, trained and equipped civilians, think Batman rather than Superman.  These costumed crime fighters together known as the Watchmen have in the preceding years to the start of the novel affected and altered the outcomes of key events in America’s history including the Vietnam War and presidency of Richard Nixon.  However, over time they have grown unpopular with the police and public leading to the Keene Act which in 1977 outlawed them.

The novel opens with the murder of Edward Blake, known as the Comedian who along with Doctor Manhattan had been operating as government-sanctioned agent since the introduction of the Keene Act.  Rorschach, who has been operating outside of the law believes there is a plot to terminate retired costumed adventurers and takes it upon himself to warn everyone.

Can he get to everyone in time? Who would want the heroes dead? And with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan threatening to start World War III is there a place once more for masked avengers?

I found this to be quite a complex story, there is a lot of movement between the past and present as we learn about the different members of the Watchmen and it wasn’t always clear where in the timeline we were.  In the different chapters we jump back in time to find out more about how the characters developed their costumed alter egos, how they all met, what their relationship and friendships with each other were like.  At the end of chapters we are given access to additional material, extracts from autobiographies, newspaper clippings, letters etc. I believe these are there to give depth to the characters to flesh them out but I don’t think they quite succeed.  I felt that character development was lacking and I struggled to feel empathy or a connection with any of the characters.

Alongside the main story we have a young boy sat by a news cart reading a comic about pirates.  At no point within the story did I understand the relevance of this sub-plot.  I just found it frustrating and would often put down the book during those sections quickly losing interest.  Since finishing the book I have read explanations about the story within a story, how the author included it to bring a subtext and allegory about the darkness within man but even on reflection I fail to see any greater meaning or impact within the main story.

The title of the series apparently refers to the famous question by Juvenal “Who watches the watchmen?” and the theme of power and the role of “superheroes” within society is very strong in the book.  Power struggles between the heroes, US and Russia, between husband and wife, lovers, friends all of these are given a spotlight with the ultimate question being does power corrupt us or is manipulation and strength the only way to win in this world?

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Book twelve: S is for Stranger #Stone

Louise Stone’s first venture into psychological thrillers is a real page turner, don’t start reading this book unless you’ve the time to finish it! Already compared to The Girl on the Train this book is in a different league.  Even at the end we’re left with a massive question mark and I love that!

When Sophie’s daughter Amy goes missing whilst they’re at the fair a doorway to a dark and murky past opens. What do events from 20 years earlier have to do with the kidnapping? Is her ex-husband telling the truth? Did Sophie’s best friend commit suicide or was she murder? And most importantly can Sophie solve the mystery in time to save her daughter Amy?

In Sophie Fraiser Stone has created a fantastically complex character.  A recovering alcoholic, desperate to do right by her daughter but plagued with issues from her past, the death of her parents when she was a teenager and the apparent suicide or murder of her best friend at University.  Stone is very clever in her narrative, we very quickly warm to Sophie, she has a vulnerability about her, and you want to believe in her.  At the same time we are painted a picture of a cold calculating ex-husband someone not be trusted.  Is Paul involved somehow in Amy’s kidnapping? Is it all a ploy to make Sophie look bad at the custody hearing? Would someone really stoop that low?

What is easy to forget is that S is for Stranger is purely Sophie’s account.  At no point do we see the situation from another perspective.  We see the Paul she wants us to see, we read the other characters DI Ward, Oliver, Darren Fletcher as Sophie wants us to see them.  Whilst she appears as a frantic character spiralling under the strain of the situation, our main character is very much in control of this narrative.

It is very difficult to discuss some of the finer and more compelling aspects of S is for Stranger without giving away key plot lines and twists.  What I will say is that Stone writes a fantastic fast paced and complex thriller.  There are a number of cliff hangers and plot twists but each one brings more depth to the story and characters rather than just being there to confuse the reader.  Stone’s choice of ending is brave and leaves the reader with a massive question mark, there is a definite implied conclusion but we are left to reason it our self.

I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a thrilling read.

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